Every person should hold two truths, one in each pocket, and take them out according to the need of the moment. One should say, “The world was created for my sake” and the other should say, “I am dust and ashes.”
-R. Simcha Bunam
I have always loved this teaching but over the years, I have also come to realize that it is, like most Jewish wisdom, more complicated than it first appears. The challenge is that the “need of the moment” is not always obvious and may, in fact, be paradoxical. Someone who seems to be acting arrogantly—and therefore in need of the “dust and ashes” truth—may, in fact, be overcompensating for a deeply-rooted insecurity that actually calls for “the world was created for my sake.” And sometimes when we find ourselves in the throes of depression, an awareness of our mortality—“dust and ashes”—can offer a perspective that is comforting, much like listening to the blues. Knowing which truth to pull out at any given time is a fine—and essential—art.
This week’s Torah portion, which begins the book of Leviticus, opens with the word that bestows its name, Vayikra—God called. It starts with the Holy One calling to Moses to teach him the laws that he will transmit to the Jewish people. But there is an interesting anomaly in the way the word Vayikra is written in the Torah scroll. The last letter, aleph, is inscribed in a small, undersized script, as if it were a sort of afterthought.
The Rabbis offer an abundance of commentary on this phenomenon but my favorite connects that aleph with the ego, as it is the first letter in the word anochi—“I” or “self.” Like R. Simcha Bunam’s teaching, this reminds us that our ability to hear and respond to the call of the Divine depends on having our ego in proper proportion. If we have too much ego, we are so full of ourselves that we leave no room for God (or anyone else). If we have too little ego, we assume ourselves unworthy of being called in the first place, and shy away from the encounter. We can only harken if we possess a strong sense of self that is balanced by compassion and genuine curiosity about others.
The Mussar understanding of the trait of humility—anavah—echoes Simcha Bunam’s insight that when it comes to ego, either too much or too little is problematic. As we noted when we covered this midah earlier, in the context of the story of Noah, it is important to avoid confusing humility with humiliation, which is all too common a mistake. Being humble does not entail self-debasement; real humility is, instead, grounded in healthy self-esteem. As with most midot, the goal is to maintain a proper equilibrium between arrogance and self-loathing. Humility is about occupying the proper amount of space in one’s life: stepping up when called upon to do so, while also leaving room for others. As the contemporary Mussar teacher Alan Morinis puts it in his beautiful book, Everyday Holiness: “No more than my space, no less than my space.” If we wish to harken to the call of the Holy One and embrace the sacred mission it demands of us, we must find that balance between dust and divinity.
Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)
This week, carry Rabbi Simcha Bunam’s two notes in your pocket: I am dust and ashes and the world was created for my sake. As he suggests, take them out according to the need of the moment—and reflect carefully on which you choose each time, and why.