Dust and Ashes

You are only dust and ashes.

The world was created just for you.

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Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At last week’s CNN Town Hall for the Democratic presidential candidates, a rabbi from Nashua posed a question to Hillary Clinton. He related the oral teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peschischa, who said that everyone must have two pockets and must keep a note in each pocket, so that a person in dark times might reach into their right pocket and find the words, “for my sake the world was created”, but that in times of success and plenty they might be able to reach into their left pocket and be reminded, “I am but dust and ashes.”

“I want you to think about what you would tell us about your two pockets,” said the rabbi in the audience.

You are only dust and ashes.

The world was created just for you.

The first place I heard that story was in an old article in the BMJ, based on advice that had been given to the inaugural students of the Hull York Medical School in 2003. I’ve never forgotten it. As doctors, the contents of our two pockets are together a contradiction and a truth that we carry with us every day of our lives. The right pocket, to carry the weight of profound responsibility and an awareness of incredible privilege. The left, a gentle reminder that we can do only what we can do and that it almost never feels like enough.

You are only dust and ashes.

The world was created just for you.

In my religious tradition, the season of Lent is about the realisation of these truths that are Gospel and the acceptance of what they mean for each one of us. The dust of Ash Wednesday begins a journey that will end on Good Friday, and at the end of that journey none of us will ever be the same. Today, we come to God in all of our humanness, with all our flaws and our imperfections, with none of the sparkle or the razzmatazz, and we are told that God loves us anyway. And that there is nothing, nothing in the world, that we can do to change that. And maybe we won’t believe it yet. But maybe when we have met God in the breaking of the bread and in the tears that we shed and in the fear that, somehow, is always real, and then when we have met him again in the rising sun on Easter Day, maybe then we will start to believe it. A contradiction that isn’t a contradiction, but the most straightforward and profound of truths: that you are loved, and you are blessed, and nothing and no one can take that away.

Remember you are mortal, formed of the Earth; from dust you came and to dust you will return. And remember too that God so loves you and so loves the world that he will give his only Son.

You are only dust and ashes.

The world was created just for you.

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2 comments

  1. I am visiting via Perpetua’s blog and will surely follow from today’s post onward.
    This was beautiful and I will be asking people about the two messages. While many may, indeed, have heard the story, it is new to me. Thank you for the introduction.


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