SALT - Tuesday, 11 Shevat 5777 - February 7, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg

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This shiur is dedicated in memory of
Miriam Heller z"l
whose yahrzeit falls on the seventh of Shvat,
by her niece, Vivian Singer.
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          In the Shirat Ha-yam – the jubilant song of praise sung by Benei Yisrael after the splitting of the Yam Suf – they give praise to the Almighty for casting “the horse and its rider” into the sea (15:1).  The Mekhilta, in a seemingly peculiar passage, tells that when God judged the Egyptian horses, He asked each horse why it pursued Benei Yisrael.  The horse naturally denied all accountability, blaming the Egyptian rider for having it gallop in pursuit of the newly-freed slaves.  God then turned to the Egyptian horseman, who blamed the horse for chasing the people.  The Mekhilta concludes that God placed the horseman on the horse and judged them together.  He found them guilty, and thus decreed that they should be drowned at sea.

            The explanation of this remark appears to emerge from the subsequent passage, which parallels an account in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 91a-b) of an exchange between the Roman emperor Antoninus and Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi.  Antoninus argued to Rabbi Yehuda that a person could escape punishment when he is judged after death, because the body and the soul could each blame the other for the sins that the individual committed during his lifetime.  The soul could point to the fact that once it departed from the body, it regained its state of pristine purity, and the body could point to the fact that once the soul departed, it was incapable of any wrongful act.  Rabbi Yehuda replied by drawing an analogy to two men – one blind, the other lame – who were assigned to guard the king’s field.  The lame servant saw the animals in the corral, and they devised a plan whereby the blind man lifted the lame man so he could pull out animals, which they proceeded to eat.  When the king accused them of stealing his animals, they claimed innocence, arguing that neither a lame person nor a blind person could be capable of such a crime.  The king then lifted the lame person on top of the blind person, and had them convicted for the crime they committed together as partners.  Similarly, Rabbi Yehuda said, God will hold us accountable for our wrongdoing because the body and soul worked together to commit the wrongs of which we are guilty.

            This analogy explains the earlier metaphor of the horse and horseman.  Chazal here depict the relationship between the body and the soul as similar to that between a horse and its rider.  Technically speaking, the Egyptian horsemen did not themselves pursue Benei Yisrael; they rode on horses, which brought them in pursuit of the former slaves.  Clearly, however, this argument is absurd, as it was the riders who had the horses gallop and steered them in the direction of Benei Yisrael.  Similarly, we might try to blame our failings on our “horse” – our negative tendencies and weaknesses.  If we were created without our sinful inclinations, then we would live pure, innocent lives without any failures.  Nevertheless, we will be held accountable for our failures because when all is said and done, we are the “riders.”  The “horse,” our negative tendencies, cannot act on its own.  It is ultimately our decision what our body does and how we conduct ourselves.  God created us with a “horse,” with innate human tendencies and desires, but we are able and expected to steer them in the proper direction and to restrain them when necessary.  The decision to act wrongly is made by our intellect, by our free will, and not by our natural inclinations.  We must assume full responsibility for our actions, and not attempt to absolve ourselves on the basis of our “horse,” because of our natural weaknesses.