We read in Parashat Vayera that after God informed Avraham of His plans to annihilate the sinful cities of Sedom and Amora, Avraham pleaded with God to spare the cities’ populations. Avraham “negotiated” with God, who agreed to rescind His decree if ten righteous people were found in Sedom. Ultimately, of course, God destroyed the region of Sedom, as it did not have even if this small number of righteous people among its population.
In presenting his petition on behalf of Sedom, Avraham declared, “Ve-anokhi afar va-eifer” – “I am but dirt and ash” (18:27), acknowledging the audacity of his effort to ask God to rescind His decree. The Gemara in Masekhet Chulin (88b) finds it very significant that Avraham spoke with such humility before God, commenting that in reward for this proclamation, Avraham’s descendants were rewarded with mitzvot involving “dirt” and “ash.” First, they were given the mitzva of sota, whereby a suspected adulteress would drink water to which dirt from the ground of the Temple was added, and her survival would be seen as proof of her innocence. Second, Benei Yisrael were given the mitzva of para aduma, which involves mixing water with the ashes of a red heifer, and this water was used to sprinkle upon people and utensils that had become impure to restore their status of purity.
Several different approaches have been taken to explain the connection indicated by the Gemara between Avraham’s declaration, “I am but dirt and ash” and the mitzvot of sota and para aduma. One approach might be to focus not on Avraham’s words themselves, but rather on the context in which they were said – namely, Avraham’s prayer on behalf of Sedom.
The common theme that connects the mitzvot of sota and para aduma is that of rectification and repair. After coming in contact with a human corpse and thus becoming impure, an individual is given the opportunity to restore his initial status of purity through the process of the para aduma waters. In the case of a sota, a relationship that is threatened by a husband’s suspicions is able to be repaired through the special sota waters, which affirm the woman’s innocence, thereby putting the husband’s concerns to rest and allowing them to rebuild a secure relationship grounded in mutual trust and loyalty.
The Gemara perhaps teaches us that this possibility of repair and rectification is earned through the quality exhibited by Avraham through his petition on behalf of Sedom. The corrupt culture of Sedom represented the very opposite of everything Avraham believed in and taught. The people of Sedom were cruel and heartless, and embraced a consistent ideology that opposed sharing, sensitivity and kindness – the very virtues that Avraham so energetically championed and so perfectly embodied. We might therefore have expected Avraham to elatedly welcome God’s decision to eliminate the wicked city that stood in direct opposition to his teachings. But Avraham instead pleaded for the city’s survival, because he understood the message of sota and para aduma; he recognized the human capacity for change and transformation. He did not want God to kill the people of Sedom because he firmly believed in them, in their potential for growth, in the possibility of repentance. The Gemara’s remark instructs that we are given the mitzvot of para aduma and sota – the opportunity to correct our mistakes, to overcome our faults, and to refine our characters – by following Avraham’s example, by recognizing the possibility of growth and change. If we truly believe that we and others are capable of improving, then we are granted this opportunity and assured of God’s assistance throughout every stage of the long, challenging process of personal growth.
(Based on a sicha of the Tolna Rebbe)