In this past week’s parsha, Yaakov has a prophetic dream in which angels ascend and descend a heavenly ladder, and God gives Yaakov a special blessing. In the beginning of the bracha, God says to Yaakov, “Your offspring will be like dust of the land…and in you will be blessed all the families of the earth and your offspring” (28:14).
This is a beautiful blessing in which, just like by Hashem’s blessing to Avraham, a nature motif is employed to show the breadth and expanse of the Jewish nation in the generations to come. Yet this bracha to Yaakov raises two distinct questions: Why does the author constantly employ nature motifs about stars in the sky and sands on the sea and dust on the earth as a way to communicate the vastness of the future Jewish nation? Why does God not simply compare the Jewish people to other nations, and say, “Your offspring will be greater than all other nations, vaster than all other peoples”? The second question is, why does God bless Yaakov in this particular instance with the imagery of his offspring being like “dust,” something that does not have an objectively palatable connotation?
To answer the first question, we need to see the blessing and the analogy to nature as something transcending parallels to other nations. Comparing one nation against another is fascinating and can certainly emphasize cultural differences as well as differences in size and magnitude. However, on a basic and obvious level, you can take no census or make such a computation as to figure out how many grains of sand are on the shore, or how many pieces of dust are on the land; just as nature defies the human desire to quantify things, so vast is the Jewish nation that it cannot be quantified. It cannot be limited by mathematical sums and population studies.
On a deeper level, nature is something really “untouched” by human hands. While nations generally become nations because humans group together and form coalitions and build communities, sands on the shore and dust on the earth and stars in the sky are so beyond human control. One cannot make sand or dust or a star in the sky, but one can work with others to build a nation. In this sense, there is an aspect of Divinity and Divine chosen-ness being ascribed to the Jewish people: we are blessed to become a nation that is comparable to God’s “something from nothing” creations, in a category so different and transcendent to that of other human nations.
In response to the second question concerning the imagery of “dust,” we must look at a place in Jewish literature in which dust, “affar,” lacks a positive meaning. In The Yom Kippur liturgy, the famous piyyut of “U’nitana Tokef” discusses the fragile control we humans have over our lives, and the fact that our existence and fate is determined by a much Higher Being. To quote the piyyut, “The origin of man is dust, his end is dust” (translation courtesy of JPS’s Entering the High Holy Days).
In this piece, man is being humbled, as he is compared to the physical thing closest to nothingness, dust. This would seem to undermine God’s blessing! Is God giving some ironic blessing in which the underlying message is that we really won’t amount to anything? Impossible. Rather, God’s bracha to Yaakov Avinu is a blessing with a dual message: we are a Divinely chosen nation, unique from all the others. At the same time, we are reminded to be humble, for, just as we are as numerous as all the dust of the land, we are nevertheless dust, unable to compare to kavod Hashem.
May we all take this special blessing as a source of simultaneous empowerment and deeply rooted humility.