Everyone must have two pockets. In the right pocket are to be the words: “For my sake was the world created.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) And in the left: “I am but dust and ashes.” (Genesis 18:27)
— attributed to Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha, in Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim
This saying depicts two contradictory visions of the Creation: According to one, the individual is the crown of Creation; according to the other, humanity is “dust and ashes.” Many people believe that Rabbi Simcha draws a continuum between the two visions, and calls on us to strike a balance between the two extremes: “Reach into the proper pocket when needed.”
I understand the passage as a warning: Both statements caution us against equally dangerous attitudes. Both are indications of an incomplete self, and are laced with a narcissistic thread. An “it’s-all -about-me” stance often reflects a sense of worthlessness. Instead of reaching into either pocket, instead of pampering one’s ego or denying it, we are challenged to use the ego carefully.
The Zionist thinker Aaron David Gordon (1856-1922), charges: “Bring us individuals! Bring us those who despair but don’t give up… who harness their despair for constructive action!” Gordon calls us to use both our ego and our sense of inadequacy — not to struggle against either, but to recruit the self in order to transcend it.
What other warnings should we keep in our pockets? —Dalia Marx
This saying teaches me the meaning of life. “For my sake, the world was created.” At birth, we are endowed with enormous potential. Our actions can change the world, ideally making it a better place. However, “I am [also] but dust and ashes.” Our time on this planet is limited. One day, all who live will return to the earth from whence we came, so we must act while we can. I cannot believe that God created human beings as little more than eventual fertilizer. In order to honor the work of Creation, we are urged to repair it. This reminds me of a midrash in which God warns us not to destroy the beauty that God created, “because if you spoil it, there is nobody after you to fix it.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)
When we become dust and ashes, may it read on our gravestones that we left the world more whole and beautiful than we found it. This is what it means to live the words, “For my sake, the world was created.” — Adena Kemper
Dalia Marx offers an innovative interpretation of the teaching from Sanhedrin, arguing that the dichotomy of the two pockets is a warning against either grandiose or self-deprecating narcissism. Her description of the text, as conveying the “two contradictory visions of the Creation,” conveys a crucial tension in our living both b’tzelem Elokim, in God’s image, and as individuals who are fundamentally separate and distanced from our Creator. In her reading, the pockets remind us to act cautiously and to veer away from the extremes of confidence and humility. This human struggle seems to hinge on the temptation of the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination, and challenges us to live in the Aristotelian or Maimonidian mean.
Personally, I am struck by how the pockets provide insight into our relationship with God. If the world was created for our sake, then we are the active and grateful recipients of God’s gift, and God is directly invested in how we build and shape that Creation. If we are nothing more than dust and ashes, then we are humble and powerless objects of God’s will whose lives are seemingly insignificant. Thus, how we balance or even caution against these two models greatly impacts how we communicate with and relate to our Creator. —Alissa Thomas
”Everyone must have two pockets.” Perhaps it should read, “Carry both in the same pocket, folded together.” Our lives are caught between moments when our ego soars and moments when we face our mortality. While we are pulled by the pride of our existence, we stand trembling as we face the truth of our unavoidable end. Should these two realities really be separated? Rather than turning to either extreme in times of uncertainty, let us fasten these two messages as a beautiful dissonance, stitched upon our hearts.
Rabbi Simcha Bunim saw Jewish existence as a precarious balancing act through a life of painful uncertainty. Bunim, who served for some 12 years as the rebbe of Przysucha, went blind before his death. When asked why he refused to see a doctor, he would reply, “I can see all I need to see.”1 What the rebbe saw was life in its unavoidable wholeness, a masterpiece of Creation, a tragedy of transience. “For my sake, the world was created, and I? I am but dust and ashes.” —Yonatan A. Dahlen
Rabbi Dalia Marx is an associate professor of liturgy and midrash at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. She has a doctorate in Jewish liturgy. Her book, Tractates Tamid, Middot and Qinnim: A Feminist Commentary, will be published soon in English.
Adena Kemper is a rabbinical and education student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
Alissa Thomas, a student at Yeshivat Maharat, graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University. She has studied at Machon Pardes, Neve Yerushalayim, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She is Rosh Beit Midrash for Uri L’Tzedek and she writes for the monthly “S Blog” for Sh’ma.
Yonatan A. Dahlen, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, currently lives in Jerusalem. His academic interests include Jewish mysticism, political theology, and the religiosity of Labor Zionism.
1 Michael Rosen. The Quest For Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim. Urim Publications, 2008, Jerusalem. p.62