Curious Praise
Overwhelmed by the beautiful sanctity of the Jewish people, Balaam burst forth with, “who can count the dust of Jacob?”[1] What did he mean by dust and why did he mention Jacob rather than Abraham?

The commentaries[2] understood this as an allusion to G-d’s blessing to Jacob, “And your seed shall be [numerous] like the dust of the earth.”[3] Who can count the Jewish dust? There are so many they are practically innumerable. Balaam didn’t attribute the dust to Abraham because G-d’s blessing to Abraham was that we would be numerous as the stars of heaven,[4] the dust of earth was Jacob’s blessing.

This answer only raises a question. If Balaam meant to praise the Jews he could have used the more flattering blessing that G-d gave to Abraham. It is far more pleasant to be called a star than dust.[5]

Another question: The Midrash noted[6] that G-d promised Abraham children like the stars of heaven,[7] to Isaac He promised children like sand at the sea [shore][8] and to Jacob He promised children like dust of the earth.[9] Why did G-d begin with stars of heaven and end with sand and dust of earth?

Stars, Sand and Dust
The answer is that though sand and stars are too numerous to count they are still of finite number. Dust of the earth is truly immeasurable, far beyond counting. Allow me to explain.

The mystics taught that stars, sand and dust reflect three possible approaches to Judaism. A Jew can be like a star. A star resides in the heaven, resplendent in radiant light, but largely irrelevant on earth. So too the Jew, can focus on transcendental thoughts that inspire the soul to ecstatic heights, but fail to perform G-d’s Mitzvot on earth. We must be familiar with the spiritual dimension of the Jewish experience, but it cannot be our sole focus. Meditation is not enough. G-d gave us the Torah so that we would live it in this world, performing Mitzvot in action to make the world a holier place.[10]

On the other side of the spectrum a Jew can be like sand. The sand on the beach is dry because the sea draws out its moisture, leaving it dry with no dampness at all. This is akin to a Jew, who never contemplates spiritual thoughts and never indulges in Jewish meditation. Rather, than scaling the dizzying heights of Divine inspiration and granting the soul its freedom to soar, this Jew is focused primarily on the Mitzvot in action with nary a thought to their vivifying charge. To this Jew, the Mitzvah is just a ritual, something to fulfill faithfully and move on.[11]

The star and sand Jews mean well, but both are self contained. They don’t transcend themselves in their devotions; they only engage the facets of Judaism that please them and thus are not truly beyond measure. Then there is the dust Jew, who combines the star and the sand. What is a dust Jew?

Jacob wasn’t promised children like dust. He was promised children like dust of the earth. The additional words, “of the earth” are instructive. They inform us that we are not like dry dust. We are like particles in a clump of earth. Dry dust can be counted, but particles in a clump cannot. It is impossible to know how many particles are contained in a clump of earth, especially a sodden clump, because it depends on how you measure your particle. Once the particles clump together and coalesce it is impossible to arrive at an objective consensus on the size of a particle. You can count the entire clump as a single unit and you would be right, but that wouldn’t tell you how many parts and layers of depth, the unit contains. The internal layers can theoretically be endless depending on how they are sliced.

In this sense the clump of earth is like a Mitzvah. Just as a clump is a single unit that contains an immeasurable number of particles so is the physical action of a Mitzvah a single unit, but when you explore its internal message and Divine expression, you encounter a transcendent light and infinite depth that is truly beyond measure.

Now we can understand the dust of the earth Jew. This is someone, who performs the Mitzvah as a single unit of ritual action, but who marries action to thought by contemplating the immeasurable depth contained therein. Unlike star Jews, whose souls soar to the spiritual summit never to return and unlike sand Jews, whose souls never leave the crust of earth, the dust of the earth Jew incorporates both extremes. They grant their souls permission to soar and force their souls to return to earth. By marrying inspiring passion to the physical action of a Mitzvah, such Jews truly transcend themselves; they are truly beyond measure.

To Be Like Dust
When Balaam asked who can count the dust of Jacob, he was talking about the innumerable number of Jews and about the Mitzvot that we perform.[12] [13]

Who can measure the infinite depth of Mitzvot, which are akin to dust in a clump of earth and who can count the Jewish people when they perform Mitzvot? When we behave in ways that are immeasurably good we become like dust of the earth, immeasurable in quantity and quality.[14] This is why Balaam chose to describe our people like dust rather than stars. Far from an unflattering description, dust is a term of endearment. It is high praise, a compliment of the highest order.[15]

[1] Numbers 22:10.

[2] See Rashi ibid.

[3] Genesis 28: 14.

[4] Genesis 15: 5.

[5] Of course the larger question we must ask is, do we really prefer to be a heavenly star over earthly dust? Do we need to shine and radiate to feel accomplished or can we accomplish more in veiled obscurity as salt of the earth? We live in a generation that worships its stars. For talents no greater than the ability to project a false image on a large screen we raise people to the level of stardom and shower them with attention and admiration. In this culture, stars are treated like royalty, telegraphing a message to our youth that value and success are achieved by the image we present to others. But this is a separate topic for a different essay.

[6] Bereshis Rabbah 2: 12.

[7] Genesis 15: 5.

[8] Genesis 22:17.

[9] Genesis 28: 14.

[10] Tanya chapter 36.

[11] See Likutei Torah Bamidbar 68c.

[12] See Rashi to Numbers 22: 10 that he was talking about mitzvot that are performed with the dust of the earth such as the prohibition against cross breeding seeds, the portions of crop donated to charity and priestly offerings, leaving the land fallow on the seventh year and others.

[13] Though Balaam referred specifically to Mitzvot performed on the land he was in fact referring to all Mitzvot. He emphasized the Mitzvot on the land because Mitzvot must be performed in the physical sense through action not through thought or intention. On the land is a reference to the fact that Mitzvot are performed in action rather than as a meditation. On the land, with the land and thus sublimating the land. See the Chassidic discourse Dorach Kochav Miyaakov, delivered on 14 Tamuz 5733.

[14] Thus we note that Abraham, who was promised children like stars, was only promised a single land with borders along its breadth and length (Genesis 13: 17). Isaac, who was promised children like sand, was also promised a land with specific limitations (Genesis 26: 3). Jacob, who was promised children like dust of the earth was promised a land without borders (Genesis 28: 14). See Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos: 118b and Or Hatorah Balak p. 918.

[15] This essay is based on the Chassidic discourse, Mi Manah Afar Yaakov, 12 Tamuz 5733.

Relevant to your professional network? Please share on Linkedin
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position or viewpoint of The Jerusalem Post. Blog authors are NOT employees, freelance or salaried, of The Jerusalem Post.

Think others should know about this? Please share