"And the Lord God created man of dust from the earth" Genesis 2:7

By Rabbi Dr Michael Harris, October 19, 2011

In his classic essay "Majesty and Humility", Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik points to two midrashic homilies cited by Rashi's commentary to this verse. According to the first midrash, the dust from which man was formed came from the whole earth, its four corners. According to the second, the dust was taken from the future site of the altar in the Temple. Which midrashic view should we prefer? Cosmic dust or local dust? Universalistic dust or particularistic dust?

Typically, Rabbi Soloveitchik refuses to privilege either pole of the dichotomy over the other. What Rashi expresses, he writes, is "the basic dialectic of man and his morality". We are ineluctably formed of both kinds of dust, representing different facets of the human condition. We yearn to understand the universe and trot the globe but we also long for our home and our roots; we are simultaneously "cosmos conscious" and "origin conscious".

Soloveitchik develops this thought in other directions, but one might also suggest that both types of dust are essential to the most noble kind of Jewish life.

In his work Orot Hakodesh, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook praises "righteous people who… are unable to restrict themselves to the Jewish people alone, and… constantly worry about and seek the good of the entire world".

Rav Kook here echoes a rich tradition of universalistic thought within Judaism. Maimonides had taught centuries before that "the Jewish people, on whom God bestowed the good of the Torah and commanded them righteous statutes and ordinances, are compassionate towards all".

Yet while our ethical reach is global, it must be rooted in our identity as Jews, as proud members of a particular people and culture. Both global and domestic dust are imperative. From a non-negotiable matrix of religious distinctiveness our moral concern embraces all humanity which, as the sidrah also teaches us, was created in God's image.

Last updated: 11:26am, October 19 2011