Hasidic tales are oral traditions passed down through the centuries in a special branch of Judaism. Its followers, Hasidim (or “Hasidhim” in Hebrew, which translates to “pious ones”), were historically Jews who hailed from all strata of society, including especially the less educated classes. Hasidism values the ideal of treating as sacred even the most mundane activity in life and concentrates on the virtues of ordinary individuals. It comes as no surprise, then, that the heroes of these stories are very frequently common folks, while divinity is found amidst prosaic reality within the narratives.
Everyone ought to have two pockets, each holding a slip of paper, so that he can reach for one or another slip as the occasion demands.
On one should be written: “I am but dust and ashes.”
And on the other: “The world was created for me.”
In a concise passage, the anecdote draws together two themes from the Torah. One is the idea that humans are formed from dust from the earth (Genesis 2:7) and return as dust (Genesis 3:19) to the earth when their lives come to an end (Ecclesiastes 12:7). An expression of humility, the line “I am dust and ashes” was uttered by Abraham, the first patriarch of Judaism, even as he was dissuading God from punishing the righteous along with the wicked in Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:27). The other is an affirmation of individual uniqueness: although all mankind is created in the mould of Adam, no two people are the same (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). This uniqueness suggests that each person holds meaning to the world. Hence, the world was created for everyone (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). The Hasidic tale removes the words of wisdom from their lofty settings and places them in the readily relatable context of preparing self-reminders for everyday use. This, together with the paring down of the original long-drawn-out narratives to the most salient points, may have contributed to the story’s inclusive appeal— effects not unlike how certain television dramas extract the essence of important writings, situate them within captivating plots and retell them to less-instructed masses.
Yet, the lack of cultural sophistication does not automatically make one less questioning of doctrines. How can a skeptic ignore the apparent contradiction between the two statements, forgetting that the world was purportedly created for him when he tries to think of himself as “dust and ashes” or that he is destined to “dust and ashes” when he attempts to imagine that the world was created for him? Rabbi Rami Shapiro thought that accurate storytelling is not about the faithful depiction of events, but all about the accurate psychospiritual connection established with the listener. Corroborating this theory is a Hasidic parable which says that Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, would light a fire at a holy place and utter a prayer for redemption. In the next generation, his disciple forgot the prayer but remembered the fire and lit it at that place too. The disciple’s disciple forgot how to light the fire but remembered the place. By the time the listener hears this, no one even knows the place but the story remains remembered, and that is sufficient to heal him. Even so, it may be that the veracity of individual details is irrelevant so long as the whole is coherent, as in the prayer story. When the internal logic appears flawed, though, it can be difficult to absorb the moral of the tale.
Nevertheless, it may actually be possible for someone to be lowly and mighty at the same time. The second statement (“The world was created for me.”) need not negate the first (“I am but dust and ashes.”). Greatness, arguably, does not depend on one’s circumstances or material possessions, but on his virtues and actions. Yet men are but transient beings in this universe. They know not of the full extent of sacrifices made by their predecessors, nor of the destinies of generations to come after them. As corporeal creatures, as opposed to spiritual or some other omnipotent forces, their ability to control events and create everlasting changes in the right direction is limited too. It is from such perspectives that their smallness cannot be disregarded. Their possible debts to pioneers and responsibilities to future generations (and, in fact, to themselves and those around them) would therefore behoove them to act with care, engage in constant learning, and be prepared to admit and correct mistakes.
On the other hand, the world has a place even for dust and ashes. One’s right to happiness is not predicated on his knowledge or abilities. Even inanimate objects which have never been alive can be imaginably deserving of respect. That those knowledge and abilities are imperfect does not mean that they are worthless. Each person’s line of thought and emotions may share similarities with those of others but, like his body, is overall, to borrow German-Swiss writer Hermann Hesse’s words, a unique experiment on the part of nature. There are thus gifts that he alone can bring to the table, if he cares to find them. These may be ideas and/or mental strengths with the potential to uplift some people’s lives—including his own.
These approaches, however, merely illustrate how each statement can function in spite of restrictions imposed by the other. It can yet be demonstrated that the truths embodied by the statements enhance each other. One may, for example, argue that a person’s potential as a unique creation is maximized when he humbly undergoes continuous self-improvement. Or, he may postulate that the world has everybody created as transient and diminutive inhabitants so that it can magnanimously accommodate them all.
It seems a marvel that two sayings with opposite connotations can work harmoniously together, one intimately linked to the other through secular and non-secular connections. Any illogicality and inconsistency perceived in such narratives may thus boil down to the hastiness of audiences who fail to give them enough thought, rather than actual shortcomings of ideas contained within them. If this kind of misconception can occur with classic prose held in high esteem, it is perhaps natural that relatively new forms of popular entertainment like television productions would be far more susceptible to it. The obvious mitigating measure would be for storytellers, whether they be experts in traditional tales or screenwriters, to respect the potential discerning capacities of audiences while spending a little more effort to flesh out necessary details.
Behind the simple, earthly beauty of certain expressive arts with mass appeal, there sometimes lies an entire world of profound wisdom. When storytellers and listeners dismiss one another too readily, however, those worlds crumble into—unsurprisingly—ashes. As much as storytelling has contributed towards the preservation of faith, a healthy dose of faith (in the non-religious sense) may help preserve the value of stories. From the ashes then will the spirit to fight on rise again!