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University of Colorado Boulder Program in Jewish Studies

Counting On Horse Power

This year, during the 49 day Omer count that takes us from Pesach to Shavuot, and from the Exodus to the Revelation at Sinai, I have been preoccupied with the movie, “The Mustang,” which I saw twice and would be happy to see again. Besides the exquisite filming and the impeccable acting, I was enthralled with the depiction of the relationship between human and animal. The basic plot: A man is imprisoned for a violent outburst of anger that took his wife’s life. He has trouble expressing himself and relating to people. He is put in a program where prisoners are trained to tame wild mustangs, which are then sold on an open market. The convict, Roman, finds himself drawn to one particularly wild and recalcitrant mustang. At first they lash out at each other, and reflect each other’s mistrust, obstinacy, and anger. They even snort in a similar way! Gradually however, a deep trust and love develop between them, resulting in a transformation of sorts for both. The prisoner and the horse have a lot in common. They both have a volatile temper, they both are wary of people, and they both chafe under authority.

So why was I so engrossed in a film during this time of year when we are supposed to spend our time working on refining our characters? I reflected on this question through the lens of Hassidic teachings about the idea that our very nature has both divine and animal aspects. Our divine nature doesn’t really need any improvement; its purpose is primarily to have a positive effect on both our humanity and physical world. However, in order to accomplish this objective, it has to first engage with and refine our own animal nature. Thus we find the interesting phenomenon that in Biblical times, the offering of the Omer came from barley, which was considered animal food, whereas the offering of Shavuot came from wheat, which was considered human food.

Why is it that on Pesach, leavened bread is ‘the enemy’ whereas 49 days later on Shavuot, bread is the most desirable offering? It is because during the in between days, we hopefully work on refining our animal natures to the extent that they can become allies rather than foes! I think “The Mustang” actually expresses this process. As this film portrays, there does seem to be a particular connection between humans and horses. Judaism does not really speak about totem animals but there is a Hassidic concept that each person has a unique animal soul that they must learn to tame and channel. If not, like in “The Mustang,” both the rider and the horse can get in trouble.

I was moved to investigate some of the biblical links between people and horses.  As Passover passes over, Moses and Miriam both sing a song of the sea. Only one phrase is repeated by both: ‘The horse and its rider are cast in the sea.’ What is so important about these words that they resonate with both Moses and Miriam? In fact, Moses’ song has many elements to it, but Miriam’s one liner focuses mainly on the horse and rider. Why this emphasis? Perhaps we can get some clarity from a related verse in Song of Songs: ‘Like a horse in the chariots of Pharaoh, I have compared you, my beloved.’ One comment on this passage is: Usually a horse follows its rider, but in this case, G-d had the rider follow the horse into the sea, to the ultimate detriment of both.

There is also a mystical understanding of this image. Rabbi Shneur Zalman in his classic work, “Likutei Torah,” explains the above verse as related to the idea that our words are compared to horses. Words are referred to as the transporters of the soul, but the transporters are actually coming from a higher source than the soul itself. As such, they can carry us much further than we could go on our own. But this can work both ways, like the verse in Proverbs: ‘Life and death are in the hands of the tongue.’ The Rebbe continues, there is a verse, ‘A horse is prepared for battle.’ Just as the swiftness and power of a horse can carry its rider to more distant places than the rider could go on its own, so words can assist a person in the battle of life on this material plain, better than the soul could achieve on its own. But just as the horse can travel further away from its rider’s destination, so to it can facilitate the return process. This is related to the yearning of the soul when it recognizes the challenges of the animal soul and its preoccupation with the physical world and the obstacles of connection to the divine. Here’s where words can help; they can take us both higher and further than the divine soul alone. At the same time that words can take us beyond this world, they can also carry the revelation of the infinite to the darkest realms of earthiness. As I wrote about in a previous article about the film, “Alpha,” we have an animal soul that can become our teacher if we guide it properly.

A relevant story:  Once, in the 1800’s, a brash, rebellious teen came riding a horse to the third Lubavitcher rebbe boasting about how fast the horse was. The Rebbe reflected, ‘Too fast is not good.’ Seeing the boy’s surprised reaction, the Rebbe explained: ‘If your horse gets you lost, then you’re really far away, which isn’t the case with a slow horse.’ The boy replied: ‘My horse knows I’m the boss and will go where I want.’ The rabbi: ‘What if he doesn’t want a boss and wants to be free?’ To the boy’s pensive look, the rabbi took the boy’s hand and added: ‘On the other hand, if he can run off so fast, he can also come home very fast.’ The boy understood and became a devoted Hassid. As in The Mustang, the passion that leads to anger can also lead to love and compassion. The previously suppressed rage can be turned into the intensity of a deep relationship.

What is so wrong with anger, from a Torah perspective? It is about wanting life to go according to our plans rather than G-d’s. That’s why the Talmud compares outbursts of anger to idol worship. If/when our will dominates, that attitude excludes a higher plan that may or may not be in sync with what we want. Even though people are endowed with free choice, if/when we worship our own conscious choice alone, we block out or ignore our deeper selves or a higher perspective. Therefore, when someone or something impedes or blocks our will, we react with anger, either outwardly or inwardly. Thus the sages talk about faith as being the foundation of Torah and our relationship with G-d. Faith, in this context, is being open to a reality beyond our limited viewpoint. In this sense, it may actually be the opposite of certainty.

One more aspect of the human-horse link from the sages: In Perek Shira, the midrashic Chapter of Song, each creature has its own verse of divine praise. The song of the horse is from chapter 123 in Psalms: ‘Behold like servants near their masters, like a maid near her mistress, so are our eyes to our G-d.’ One of the commentaries explains how this verse relates to a horse in a beautiful way: Once the horse bonds with its master, its loyalty is absolute, and the rapport is ubiquitous. They do not act like servants who long to escape from the company of their masters; they are not infuriated when they don’t get their own way and are in contrast, delighted to serve and assist. So it can be in our relationship with G-d. This verse is teaching us that there is no place to go and no circumstance to be in, where we will feel disconnected and alienated from G-d, whose presence encompasses us in space, time, and soul.

So as we experience the revelation on Shavuot, let us make peace between our divine and animal natures, as expressed in another verse from Song of Songs: ‘Draw me close to you…so that WE (both souls) will run after you.’ When this union can happen both individually and collectively, we can achieve the Messianic vision of a redeemed world.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah Prep

About Morah Yehudis Fishman

I have been teaching Torah and Chassidic writings for over forty years to students of all ages and backgrounds, both on the East Coast and the Midwest. I have been a director of several Jewish organizations in Santa Fe and Colorado. My articles and poetry on a wide variety of Jewish topics have been printed in many publications, and also are available online.

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