A young boy once went to the circus and was astonished when he saw a giant elephant tethered to the ground by a thin rope. Curious, he walked over to the elephant trainer and asked: “How are you holding down such a huge elephant with such a tiny top? The rope doesn’t look very strong. This elephant could break down a brick wall, why doesn’t he break free of this tiny rope?” The trainer smiled at him, and explained: “When this elephant was a baby, weighing just 250 pounds, we tied it up with this same rope. Every day he tried to break free, but he couldn’t manage to do it. He tried and tried, but to no avail. After a few months, he finally gave up, convinced that it was impossible to escape. Now, he weighs two thousand pounds, and is strong enough to easily break free of these ropes. However, in his mind, he is still chained by an unbreakable rope, so he doesn’t even try to escape.”
Anochi Afar V’Efer
In Parshas Vayeira, Avraham famously says, “Anochi afar v’efer”, which literally means “I am but dust and ashes” (Bereishis 18:27). While this is generally understood as a statement of extreme humility, there is an even deeper layer that we must develop. In order to understand the deeper intimations of this important statement, we must return to Parshas Lech Lecha, in which Avraham has a perplexing encounter with Hashem. Hashem promises Avraham that he will become the father of an immeasurably populous nation, to which Avraham seems to voice his doubts. He challenges Hashem, claiming that not only is he currently childless, the stars (mazalos) say that he will never have a child. How then, he asks Hashem, can You promise that I will be the father of a great nation? Hashem responds by taking Avraham “hachutza”- outside (Bereishis 15:5). Rashi explains this to mean that Hashem took Avraham “above the stars”.
This entire episode is peculiar. Avraham argues with Hashem, using what he saw in the stars as his evidence. What does it mean that Avraham saw in the stars that he was not destined to have a child? And how can Avraham argue with Hashem about what will happen? If Hashem tells Avraham that he will have a child, how can Avraham even think of suggesting otherwise? And finally, what does it mean that Hashem took Avraham “above the stars”?
Chazal (Shabbos 156a) explain that the world has a natural course, referred to as mazal (literally translated as a divine “flow”). Just as a scientist can study an apple seed and see the exact apple tree that will eventually grow forth from it, astrologists can study the stars and see which events Hashem has designed to come to pass in the world. Therefore, Avraham had a valid question: on the one hand, Hashem had just promised him a child. On the other hand, Hashem created the mazalos, which are telling Avraham the opposite, that he will not have a child.
In response to Avraham’s question, Hashem takes him “above the stars.” The Gemara explains that Hashem was teaching Avraham a very deep principle: “ein mazel li’Yisrael” – the Jews are not bound by nature. The stars may say one thing, but the stars themselves are controlled by Hashem. When you are connected to the Source of reality itself, Hashem, you can transcend the stars, you can overcome any mazal. Thus, as long as Avraham lived within the limits of nature, he could not have any children, but once he transcended the natural, anything was possible.
One question remains: If the events in this world emanate from the mazalos, how can we reconcile the fact that they foretold that Avraham would not have children? Chazal do not claim that the mazal changed, only that Avraham transcended it. How did this work?
The answer is profound. At this point, Avraham’s name was still Avram. The mazalos told the truth: Avram would not have a child. But once Avram realized that he wasn’t bound by nature, he transcended his current state, and transformed himself. Two perakim (chapters) later, Avram’s name was changed to Avraham. “Avram” wasn’t destined to have a child, but “Avraham” was! Rashi (Toldos 25:19) explains that as soon as Avram became Avraham, he was able to have Yitzchak. In Jewish thought, a name reflects essence. (The Hebrew word for name (shem) shares the same root as the word for soul (neshama), because a person’s name reflects their very essence.) Therefore, changing one’s name reflects a much deeper change, a change at the very root level of the self. In other words, Avraham’s change in name resulted in a complete metamorphosis, it was his way of transcending his mazal, and living on a plane above nature. (Even if we ourselves don’t change our name, we can still tap into this idea of self-transformation and choose to create a more empowering identity for ourselves.)
Recreation of Self
Now we can understand Avraham’s famous statement, “Anochi afar v’efer,” on an even deeper level. Ashes represent an elemental breakdown, the most basic particles of an object. Dirt is the starting point of growth, the place where seeds are planted and given life. In a deeper sense, Avraham was saying that every day he would “ash” himself, breaking his very “self” down into its elemental, root form, and he would then plant himself anew. In other words, Avraham would recreate himself every single day.
The most amazing part of this famous statement is its placement. When does Avraham say this phrase? Right after his name is changed from Avram to Avraham! Only once Avraham realized that his potential is limitless, and that he can transcend his mazal, did he also realize that he could endlessly develop himself further; ashing and planting himself anew every single day.
The Ultimate Revelation
Now we can return to our opening story. What happens when the elephant discovers that the rope isn’t strong enough to hold him down? A fire once broke out in the circus, and during the ensuing chaos, the circus tent fell down. After the dust settled, the trainers began searching for the elephant. To their amazement, they couldn’t find the elephant anywhere. Finally, a few hours later, they found him wandering in the nearby forest. During the fire, the elephant had been overcome with fear and adrenaline; in his panic, he easily broke free of his ropes. When they tied him down again, the elephant escaped just moments later. They tried again, bur the elephant broke loose once more. It was clear that once the elephant realized that the ropes couldn’t hold him, he wouldn’t be held back by these “chains” any longer. While at one point he thought these ropes controlled him, he now realized that the only one holding him back was himself! The trainers had no choice; they had to get a new elephant for the circus.
Does this idea ring true for you? How often do we create mental cages of our own? How often do we allow other people’s opinions of us to become our reality? We allow people to tell us what we can or cannot do. Sometimes it’s a friend or loved one. But worst of all, it’s usually our own inner voice that is the cause of our self-doubt. We convince ourselves that “we can’t”; we’re not smart enough, good-looking enough, or funny enough. We’re too old or too young, too short or too tall. But here’s the key: we are the only ones who hold the key to our mental cages, because we created the lock. Opening the lock is simple, it requires only that we make a new decision; that we change our identity; that we believe it is possible. History is being read, but it’s also being written today by people with courage and imagination. (In other words, your acts of greatness will be forever engraved into history. History is not only a past event, being read; the present moment as well is forever being transformed into a part of human history.) We need to imagine a greater future, a greater version of ourselves. We need to close our eyes and picture an ideal future, then open our eyes and make that our reality. This is the actualization of ein mazel li’Yisrael; there truly are no limits. When we are in touch with our best and higher selves, and connected to Hashem, the Source of all self, anything is possible. Let us be inspired to follow in Avraham’s footsteps, and journey beyond the stars. There is a famous saying: “Let’s shoot for the moon, for even if we miss, we’ll land amongst the stars.” I say, let’s land above the stars.