Rashi writes that Avraham, not knowing his guests were angels, asked them to wash their feet before entering his home lest they be pagans who worshipped this dust and would bring their idolatry into his home. It could be that the Torah (or more accurately, Rashi) simply means to underscore the degree to which Avraham distanced himself from idolatry, but (as my son’s Rebbe asked yesterday) why mention specifically the detail of “worshipping dust of the feet”?
We find another reference to dust in Parshas vaYishlach in the context of Ya’akov’s battle with the angel of Eisav, where the Torah uses the expression, “vaYe’avek ish imo.” Chazal see a hint in this expression to the dust of their feet rising to the Heavenly throne. Again, why call our attention specifically to the rising dust in the context of this conflict?
Ya’akov’s battle occurs when he is left alone, “vaYivaser Ya’akov levado.” Rashi (based on Chazal) writes that Ya’akov was alone because he had returned for the little vessels which had been left behind. The Ohev Yisrael explains that every tzadik and every person has moments of gadlus hamochin and katnus hamochin. At times we feel inspired, alive, confident, we relish our avodas Hashem and learning; at times we may become small minded, depressed, out outlook narrow, or vision diminished. The Torah uses the term Yisrael when it wants to reference the former state; it uses the term Ya’akov when it wants to reference the latter state. It was the little vessels, the smallness of vision and outlook, which brought Ya’akov (as opposed to Yisrael) back and left him feeling alone and abandoned. In some sense the battle with the angel of Eisav is a battle to elevate this smallmindedness, this lack of vision and inspiration. Ya’akov was able to lift himself out of katnus hamochin, to worship Hashem not only when he was at the height and pinnacle of inspiration, when he head was into it, as we say, but even from the lowest depths of his consciousness, even the dust of his feet, his katnus hamochin, was elevated to the Heavenly throne.
The Maor v’Shemesh is medayek in the Torah’s use of the expression “mincha” instead of “matanah” to describe the gifts sent by Ya’akov to Eisav. “Mincha” has the same gematreiya value as avak, dust (=103). To overcome Eisav, to even dream of transforming Eisav to good, would require elevating the lowest levels of creation, the dust, the darkest katnus hamochin. (Update: My wife made the following suggestion: "mincha" is associated with Yitzchak, who Chazal tell us instituted that tefilah. Perhaps Ya'akov was trying to remind Eisav that they both shared a relationship with their father Yitzchak and in his honor a fight should be avoided.)
I heard once from R’ Naftali Jeger, Rosh Yeshiva of Sha’ar Yoshuv, in the name of R’ Tzadok (which I have not been able to track down) that this is the meaning of the Mishna in Brachos which tells us that we may not enter the Har haBayis with dust on our feet. The Mikdash is not a place for katnus hamochin! And with this in mind we can perhaps gain an appreciation for the description of so many aveiros as avak – avak lashon hara, avak shevi’is, avak ribis. These sins come about because we are dragged down in our avodah and wallow in the dust, unable to raise our spirits.
The Ohev Yisrael explains that this the meaning of Avraham’s request to remove the avak, the dust of the feet, before entering his tent. Avraham asked his guests to leave behind their katnus hamochin, their small minded vision of the world, and elevate themselves by joining him in his avodah.
(Side note: for two interesting thoughts on last week's parsha, see my wife's posts here and here.)