Thanking G-d at every stage in your life is important.
In the olden days the Mizbeach (altar) represented the place in which a person could offer up thanks to Hashem.
At the end of this week’s Parsha, the Torah tells us that Avraham built a Mizbeach upon which to sacrifice his son, Yitzchak. This is the fourth Mizbeach built by Avraham. In Parshat Lech Lecha, he builds one at his first stop in Eretz Yisrael, Shchem, where HaKadosh Baruch Hu informs him that his descendants would inherit the land. He builds a second one between Bet El and Ay. He builds his third Mizbeach in Chevron, after separating from Lot, when Hashem tells him, “Kum hithalech ba’aretz – Go walk in the land…for to you I shall give it” (Bereishit 13:18).
The second Mizbeach, built between Bet El and Ay, is significant in that it is the only Mizbeach to which Avraham Avinu returns. Why is it that he decides to return to this Mizbeach and what is the significance in such a return?
Let us focus on another episode in this week’s Parsha that will enhance our understanding of the situation.
The people of Sodom and Gemora were very wicked and Hashem wished to destroy them. First He let Avraham know about this.
Avraham ran to their defence and started to pray vehemently to Hashem to have mercy on the people. He asked that if there were to be found 50 Tsadikim in the place then Hashem should have mercy and not destroy. Hashem agreed. Avraham saw that there were not 50 Tsadikim but still wished to ask Hashem further. He introduced his next prayer with the famous words “I am but dust and ash”.
His prayer was successful and had Hashem found ten (the eventual number that Avraham managed to achieve) Tsadikim then Hashem would not have destroyed the area.
What a powerful prayer, what did Avraham mean by dust and ash?
Earth as a substance has very little significance; it is simply dust of the ground. But if one takes a seed and plants it in the earth, the earth nurtures the seed and enables it to grow into a beautiful plant or a tree. Thus, we might say that earth has little significance in the past, but great potential in the future.
Ashes are the opposite. In the future, they are useless. But if we were to examine the ashes’ role in the past, we would likely find that they had at one point served an important function, perhaps warming a house, or perhaps they came from a vessel that had been used for many years and had finally worn down.
Avraham felt that he encompassed the negative qualities of both dust and ashes – he was like dust in the past, and like ashes in the future.
When approaching Hashem with a request, he understood that he was nothing, he deserved nothing, and that whatever the Creator wishes will be.
That is why his prayer was so powerful and effective!
In fact the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabah 9:15) relates that Hashem was so impressed so to speak, that He told Avraham, “Because you said, ‘I am but dust and ash,’ I promise you that your children will be given two great Mitzvot which are performed with dust and ashes. The ashes of the Parah Adumah (the red heifer, the ashes of which were sprinkled upon one who had become defiled through contact with a corpse), and the dust of the Sotah (the wayward wife, who is brought to the Temple and is given to drink a mixture consisting of water, earth (dust), and the letters of Hashem’s name dissolved in the water).”
The Dubno Maggid, explains the above Midrash by means of a parable. Once there was a king who made a very large and exclusive banquet. Only the most important and influential people were invited. One of the invitees was a very special man, a wise and scholarly individual, who was highly distinguished among his peers. As expected, the king had set aside a seat for this special guest at the head table.
This guest, however, was also a very modest and unassuming person. When he arrived, he absolutely refused to be seated anywhere near the head table. Instead, he chose for himself a simple place towards the back of the banquet hall. The king, seeing what had happened, repeatedly tried to get his distinguished guest to take his place at the head table. But to no avail. He absolutely refused to sit anywhere other than at his humble table in the back.
Then the king had an idea. He made his plan known to the others seated at the head table, and they immediately began implementing it. One by one they left their places at the head table, and found themselves a seat at the same table where the humble but distinguished guest was seated. His table had now become the “head table”.
The same was true with Avraham. In his humility, he truly felt himself to be dust (hence its use in the mitzvah of Sotah, which comes to clarify something that has occurred in the past – i.e. whether the wife strayed from her husband or not) and ash (hence its use for the mitzvah of Parah Adumah, whose ashes are used in the future to purify one who has become defiled). “If you insist on being dust and ash,” said Hashem, “then I will take dust and ash and create from them beautiful Mitzvot, which will bring honour to you.”
When Avraham returned from his short stay in Egypt, the Pasuk relates (13:2) that he was heavily laden with cattle, silver and gold. He had amassed great wealth. Yet he was afraid that this great wealth would steer him off the path. He was worried that it would affect his character, and people might think that he has now left the path of the righteous in order to follow the path of worldly pursuits. Thus the first thing he did was to go back to the place he had originally offered up an offering between Bet El and Ay, and again make an offering. This symbolised that just as he had gone down to Egypt as a righteous man, so too he had come up righteous and that he still acknowledged everything was from Hashem.
Avraham understood all his life that he was but dust and ashes, any wealth amassed was considered to him to be Kaved – heavy. Of course it was welcome, and he would use it for the best, but that was not the main purpose in life. He constantly held his humility and thus merited such a close relationship with Hashem.