At the conclusion of prayer, the talmudic scholar Rava would add a personal supplication (B. Berachot 17a): "My God, before I was formed I was unworthy, and now that I am formed it is as if I had not been formed," highlighting the almost impossible pursuit of the Divine Will in this world.
One commentator connects Rava's prayer to another talmudic passage which reports a vote on the question of whether it is good for humans to be created or not (B. Eiruvin 13b). The show of hands revealed a somber view of life as it was decided that it would be better for humans not to have been born. Without coming into this world, there would be no possibility of transgressing the numerous negative commandments. This is the theme of Rava's prayer: I may not have been worthy before I was created for I had no merits, but now that I have been brought into the world I most certainly am not worthy for I must have sinned (Maharsha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland).
Rava continued his personal supplication: "I am dust in my life, and surely I am dust in my death. Behold, before You I am like a vessel filled with shame and humiliation." Having painted a picture of an existence of no value - unworthiness, dust, shame and humiliation - Rava turned to God with a request: "May it be Your will, God, my Lord that I not sin again and what I have sinned before you - obliterate with Your abundant mercy, though not through suffering or serious illness." Another talmudic sage, Rav Hamnuna Zuti, adopted this short prayer as his confessional supplication on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. We follow this example and at the end of the Amida at each service on Yom Kippur we recite Rava's prayer as part of the confessional.
Focusing on one aspect of Rava's prayer - "I am dust in my life, and surely I am dust in my death" - we can ask: What is the thrust of being like dust?
The image is of biblical origin. Dust first appears as the raw material for the creation of humans (Genesis 2:7), but quickly becomes part of the curse of physicality decreed against humankind: ...for you are dust and you will return to dust (Genesis 3:19).
Acknowledging our dusty origins and end is recognition of our nature as physical human beings in this finite world. Further in our talmudic passage, however, we are told that another scholar - Mar the son of Ravina - actually beseeched God to be like dust: "... and may my soul be like dust to all... " This prayer is not reserved for Yom Kippur, but is appended to the thrice daily Amida suggesting that it reflects a central theme in our tradition.
Indeed in the Bible, being like dust is considered a national blessing. Amongst the first blessings God bestowed on our ancestors was that their progeny would be like the dust of the land (Genesis 13:16).
In a similar vein, as Jacob flees from Beersheba after appropriating his brother's blessings, he stops to rest at the end of the day. At this bivouac Jacob has a fantastic dream where angels are ascending and descending a ladder that is firmly planted in the ground, but reaches up to the heavens. The Almighty appears to him with a promise: ...and your progeny will be like the dust of the land... (Genesis 28:14).
How are we to understand the imagery of being like the dust of the earth? Is this a positive icon, a desirable or wanted likeness? Or are we asking to be downtrodden and inconsequential?
The first dust-blessing bestowed on Abraham is elucidated: And I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth - if a person could count the specks of dust of the land, then your offspring will also be countable (Genesis 13:16). Our small nation will be so numerous that we will not be able to be counted. Being like dust is a quantative blessing.
AN ALTERNATIVE approach looks at the first references to dust. As we have seen, dust evokes the physical condition of human existence and the finite and fleeting nature of life on earth. In this sense, references to our dusty character are sobering reminders that we are not gods. Perhaps the promise to our forefathers that we will be like dust is a blessing that we can attain the elusive quality of humility (Rabbi Hanoch Zundel, 19th century, Bialystok).
One commentator - following the line of the insignificance of dust - suggests that we pine for a reality when our enemies pay no attention to us and do not bother to curse us (Maharsha). Perhaps we can relate to this blessing in light of our reality: Our tiny country draws so much global attention; our every move is scrutinized on the front pages of newspapers around the world in an unprecedented fashion. Can we not relate to the wish that we were not the focus of so much interest?
A further explanation offered by the commentators highlights a different aspect of dust - its eternal nature. Dust is never destroyed, and we pray that we too will be everlasting (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany). Indeed, in biblical ritual law, in cases where a house must be torn down because it is afflicted with the spiritual disease of tzara'at [roughly translated as leprosy], the dust remains. Though the constituent parts must be moved to outside the city limits, its dusty raw material remains (see Leviticus 14). Even when there are those who would have us utterly wiped out, we continue. Despite being moved from one place to another, chased out of city and state, we survive just like the everlasting dust of the earth.
Our people strive to be like the dust of the earth. This ideal does not spring from masochistic desires to be trampled. Rather, we seek the blessings in being like dust: The uncountable quantity of dust, the humility of this trampled substance, the overlooked insignificance of what we step on and perhaps most importantly its eternal nature.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.