Why does Abraham declare, “I am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). The Beit Halevi (Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik) offers a brilliant insight.
There is a difference between dust and ashes: Dust represents something that has never been of value, but might one day be of value. You can sow plants in dust, or make pottery from it. Ashes, on the other hand, are of no value in the future, but represent something that has had value in the past, before being reduced to ashes. So Abraham was referring both to what he had been and what he might be. It was a statement of complete humility.
Of course, from God’s point of view in choosing Abraham, the other side of the Beit Halevi’s comment is also true. Abraham’s descendants, God says, will be as the dust of the earth. In other words, they may start as nothing, but God will plant in them something that will grow and flourish.
Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiWolpe