Parashat Vayeira begins with the famous story of Avraham’s hospitality extended to three wayfarers, who later turned out to be angels who had come to inform Avraham that his wife, Sara, would conceive and deliver a child. Rashi (18:4), based on the Gemara (Bava Metzia 86b), famously comments that Avraham mistook the angels for pagans – specifically, pagans who “bowed to the dust of their feet.” A number of later writers sought to explain the meaning of this very peculiar form of idol worship – bowing to the dust which collects on one’s feet while walking.
Rav Nachum Mordechai Perlow of Novominsk, in Pe’er Nachum, suggests that Chazal refer here to the tendency to mistake the journey for the final destination. Dust collects on one’s feet in transit, while he makes his way to where he wants to be. When the Gemara speaks of those who “worship” the dust of their feet, the Rebbe of Novominsk explained, they seek to depict those who overemphasize, and pay an inordinate amount of attention to, the journey, instead of focusing on the final goal. Specifically, our primary objective in life must be the devoted service of the Almighty, and the time and work we invest in securing our physical and material needs are secondary, the journey we must undertake to reach the final goal, which is serving our Creator. Chazal here warn against “worshipping” the “dust of our feet,” overemphasizing the journey we need to take to reach our goal, such that we lose sight of our goal.
The Rebbe of Novominsk cites in this context the startling comment of the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 56:2) regarding Avraham’s journey to Mount Moriah where he was commanded to sacrifice his son. When Avraham reached the point where he saw the site where the sacrifice was to be made, the Midrash relates, he turned to those who accompanied him – Yitzchak, and his two attendants (identified by the Midrash as Yishmael and Eliezer) – and asked them what they saw in the distance. Yitzchak replied that he saw “a cloud hanging over the mountain,” signifying the sacred status of the site, whereas the attendants saw nothing. In response, the Midrash tells, Avraham said to his attendants to stay where they were with the donkey, and not proceed to the sacred site, because they “resemble the donkey.” The fact that they did not see the sign of the site’s sanctity meant that they were no better than their animals. The Rebbe of Novominsk explains that a donkey – the animal of transport – sees only the journey. It has no knowledge or cognizance of the destination. The Midrash here contrasts those who see the “cloud,” who are keenly aware of their end goal and ultimate objective, and those who go through life like a donkey – moving forward without being mindful of their goal. We must live each day with a clear sense of what is the means and what is the end, what our goals are and what things we do only as the means to reach that goal. Rather than “worship” the “dust,” the journey, we should remain focused on the goal of serving our Creator, and ensure not to regard the means as the ultimate objective.