The first human beings, says Midrash Rabbah, transcended space and time: they stretched from one end of the universe to the other; and they saw through time, from beginning to end. Their home, the Garden of Eden, adds Etz Yosef, was not just a corner of creation; creation was a corner of the Garden!
But we were expelled from Eden to become like every other creature; remembering, however, what it once was like to be not just “dust and ashes” but actually “like the angels” (Psalms 8:6).
It’s the dust and ashes part that occupies some commentators to this week’s Torah reading on the ritual status of a birthing mother. Bypassing discussion of the birth process itself, they question the wisdom of producing another human being who inevitably falls short of angelic greatness.
But they quickly balance this jaundiced view of human nature. The Chatam Sofer concedes that we are “dust and ashes,” but adds the dimension of distinctive human morality. Our own evildoing is what reduces us to the level of lower-order creatures who merely crawl in the dirt without ever imagining a sky, much less a heaven. Righteousness, however, elevates us to be angelic.
Other commentators agree, but wonder, nonetheless, about the miracle of human imagination. How can “dust and ashes” even picture a mythic time when we transcended time and space?
The usual metaphysical answer comes from Redak (David Kimchi, 1160-1235): Only humans have a soul, he says; our bodies are earthly, but the soul aspires to what the body cannot attain. The 18th-century Metzudat David echoes the philosophical Enlightenment when he credits the distinctively human capacity for speech and reason.
I find the first explanation limited. Citing our soul as the root of human aspiration does not explain that aspiration; it merely names it. The question still stands. How is it that human beings, “just dust and ashes” really, still manage to “dream big”?
The second explanation at least explains the phenomenon. Credit human reason! It’s painfully elitist, however — reminiscent of Plato’s philosopher kings who soar above the masses because they alone perceive heavenly truths. Maimonides would have agreed, but overall, Judaism prefers the Chatam Sofer’s answer: Imagination, too, is explainable by human kindness, which is innate within us.
Yes: innate. It cannot be that we reason our way to kindness; or else the smartest people would be the kindest! Both reason and kindness must be innate. And it is not just reason alone that stretches our imagination heavenward; kindness, too, demands an imaginative leap to human betterness.
This Jewish commitment to innate human kindness stands in contrast to the classic Christian sense that we are born evil — victims of original sin, inherited from Adam and Eve.
Here is the flip side of the troubling notion that giving birth to another human being just adds more dust and ashes to the world. Equally, it produces the potential for more lovingkindness.
The idea that kindness is simply part of who we are appears in an early interpretation of Job 10:12, carried in the 13th-century source Tzedah Laderekh. Meditating on his coming into being as an embryo, Job tells God, “You clothed me with skin and flesh. You wove me with bones and sinews, bestowed on me life and kindness.”
The interpretation reads “life [chaim] and kindness [chesed]” as if they are proper names of angels (Chaim and Chesed) dispatched to nurture the embryo into wholeness. We may be dust and ashes, but we are also like the angels — two angels in particular, named Life and Kindness: they are ingrained in us at birth, no less than “skin and flesh … bones and sinews.” Instead of the doctrine of “original sin,” Judaism gives us “original kindness.”
We are born as a very peculiar sort of dust and ashes: we are dust and ashes animated by life and by kindness, kindness that outlives the dust and ashes part, and actually does allow us to transcend time and space, just the way we used to.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.