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15 Av 5760 - August 16, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
The Torah Universe: Singing Horses and Mules

by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin

Perek Shirah is an ancient text that is at least two thousand years old; some commentaries even attribute its authorship to Dovid Hamelech! It is a list of eighty-four elements of the natural world, including elements of the sky and of the earth, plants, birds, animals and insects, attaching a posuk from the Torah to each.

The concept behind Perek Shirah is that everything in the natural world teaches us a lesson in philosophy or ethics, and the verse gives a clue as to what that lesson is.

"Perek Shirah" literally means "Chapter of Song." But in which way is it a song? The text itself is certainly not a song; the words do not rhyme, nor is it arranged in a structure of poetic verse. Perhaps the word "song" refers to the actions of the creatures involved. But it can hardly be true in a literal sense that creatures sing -- we could get away with such a description for the birds and maybe certain insects, but surely not for the mammals and reptiles, and certainly not for plants!

Rather, the creatures sing in a more abstract, perhaps mystical sense. A melody is comprised of a variety of notes. Each note by itself is plain and boring. It is the harmony of a variety of different notes, each occurring at a specific time, which produces a beautiful melody.

The same is true, at a larger scale, of an orchestra. Its beauty arises from the harmony of the different instruments involved. There is no such thing as the "best" instrument. If every musician were to play the same instrument, the results would not be particularly spectacular. It is precisely because an orchestra is made up of different instruments that the composite symphony is so pleasant.

The natural world plays such a symphony. It is made up of a vast array of different components, all of which function together in perfect harmony. The ecosystem is a finely engineered and highly delicate assemblage. There is a bewildering set of interacting patterns. At a very general scale, we note that the flowers are pollinated by the insects, and the insects are preyed upon by reptiles, which are in turn eaten by mammals. When these die, their remains fertilize the soil for new growth, aided by the sun and rain. It is a marvelous and extraordinarily intricate system. This symphony of different components is the song of nature.

But this is a shallow perspective, taking nature at face value alone. When we consider that each aspect of nature manifests different spiritual qualities, the song takes on an entirely new dimension. Nature is seen to be a tapestry of spiritual colors, playing a transcendent melody. This is the real symphony of nature.

We can develop the metaphor of an orchestra more fully. In this spiritual orchestra, the musical instruments are the creations in the natural world, of land, sea and sky. The Craftsman who made these instruments is the Creator Himself, who also composed the melody that they should play. The different musical notes are the different lessons of the Torah, each of which can be played by a specific creation. The musicians are man himself who, by learning the lesson that the creation embodies, are playing its music. And Perek Shirah is the instructor and conductor, teaching man how to produce the correct sound from each instrument and how they he should function with others in harmony.

Let us look at the songs in Perek Shirah of two animals: the horse and the mule. Perek Shirah tells us that "The horse is saying, `Behold, as the eyes of the servants to the hand of their master, as the eyes of the maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so are our eyes to Hashem our G-d until He will favor us' (Tehillim 123:2)." What does this mean? What lesson is the horse teaching us?

On February 18th, 1519, Hernando Cortes set sail from Spain for Mexico with six hundred men and sixteen horses. Within two years, he had conquered the Aztec civilization, and their capital city of Tenochtitlan lay in ruins. His victory was doubtless due in part to the fact that his men possessed guns; but they had another, even greater, advantage. As William H. Prescott noted in his History of the Conquest of Mexico in 1843, it was the sixteen horses that won the battle; not through any brute advantage that they gave so much as through the terror that they inflicted:

"[The Aztecs] . . . had no large domesticated animals, and were unacquainted with any beast of burden. Their imaginations were bewildered when they beheld the strange apparition of the horse and his rider moving in unison and obedient to one impulse, as if possessed of a common nature; and as they saw the terrible animal, with `his neck clothed in thunder,' bearing down on their squadrons and trampling them in the dust, no wonder they should have regarded him with the mysterious terror felt for a supernatural being."

This might help us appreciate the peculiarities of beasts of burden in general and the domestic horse in particular. Proud and powerful, it nevertheless submits itself to the control of relatively weak man. Capable of a thundering gallop, it will trot docilely behind its human master. Tossing its mane in a symbol of freedom, it readily obeys instructions from the small biped sitting on its back.

Its free spirit does not necessarily suffer from deferring to authority. Picture the lowly soldier, just drafted into the ranks of the nation's army. There is a chain of authority, and he is right at the bottom of it. Everyone gives orders to him. There are two courses of action open to him. He can maintain his independence, fight for his freedom, and refuse to submit himself to any authority -- in which case he will soon find himself in prison.

Alternatively, he can choose to control his ego and submit himself to authority. If he excels at this self-discipline, he will find himself rising in rank. The more he submits to the authority of the system, the more powerful he becomes.

Servitude is not suicide. The same is true for man's relationship with Hashem. The human spirit is not compromised by subjugation to Hashem's authority.

" 'The words were chorus (engraved) on the tablets' (Shemos 32:16) -- Do not read chorus but rather cheirus (free); for there is no freer man than the one who busies himself with Torah" (Tanna Devei Eliyahu Zuta 17).

This statement initially seems bizarre. How can subjugating oneself to the yoke of the Torah, with its 613 commandments governing every sphere of one's activities, be rated as a process of freedom?

The answer is that while such a person is not free in the sense of having a wealth of choices, he is free in the sense of being free to follow the dictates of his soul. He is not enslaved by the desires of his body, and Hashem prevents him from being encumbered by the burdens of the material world. In dedicating himself to the service of the King of Kings, lesser forces lose their hold on him.

The horse is not disadvantaged by its self- discipline in subduing its spirit to the control of man. On the contrary, its gains are numerous. It need no longer be enslaved to searching for food and water, as these needs are supplied by its human masters. Its proud spirit finds expression in the thundering charges of races and war.

The song of the horse is the song of the one who subjugates himself to higher authority: "A song of ascents; to You I raised my eyes, Who dwells in the Heavens" (Tehillim 123:1). The psalm continues, "Behold, as the eyes of the servants to the hand of their master, as the eyes of the maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so are our eyes to Hashem our G-d until He will favor us." By dedicating himself to the service of Hashem, man finds ultimate fulfillment and reward.

The song of the mule in Perek Shirah is, "All the kings of the earth shall acknowledge You, Hashem, for they have heard the sayings of Your mouth" (Tehillim 138:4).

The Torah is not always popular. Often, its lessons are perceived as being old-fashioned, politically incorrect or otherwise unfashionable and outmoded. This phenomenon is the backdrop to a cryptic story in the gemora:

[The Elders of Athens asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya:] "When salt spoils, with what can one salt it?"

[Rabbi Yehoshua] replied: "With the afterbirth of a mule."

"But does a mule have an afterbirth?"

"And does salt spoil?" (Bechoros 8b)

When the Elders of Athens spoke about salt, they were referring to Torah, the preservative of the Jewish People. They considered that this preservative had spoiled; that it had become obsolete and irrelevant. After all, those were the glorious days of Greek culture, and many Jews were seeing the Torah as old-fashioned. Rather than observe Shabbos, they wanted to run in the Olympics; rather than study Torah, they wanted to study Greek philosophy. It was time, said the Greek Elders, to salt the salt. It was time to change the Torah in order to keep it in the spirit of the day and ensure its popularity. It was time to reform Judaism.

Rabbi Yehoshua replied that they should use the afterbirth of a mule, the hybrid offspring of a horse and donkey. A mule seems like a wonderful animal. It's strong, it's surefooted, it's long- lived. By taking elements of the donkey and of the horse, we seem to have the best of both worlds. It seems just like a Hellenized, modernized Judaism -- hybridizing the two cultures in order to have the best of both worlds.

There's just one problem.

Mules can't breed. They are sterile.

You want to reform Judaism, to combine it with the latest fads? Sure, it will look great, and it will doubtless be very popular. But it won't last. It's not authentic and it can't perpetuate. Torah, the preservative of the Jewish People, will continue to preserve them, as long as it is left pure and unadulterated.

The truth of the matter is that in any case the mule is not such a wonderful innovation. Like most of man's experiments to alter the natural state of affairs, that which seems like an improvement turns out to have unexpected drawbacks. The mule turns out to be a stubborn animal. It might be a strong worker, but that's not much help when it refuses to work. Stubborn, intractable and often bad-tempered, the mule isn't such a terrific new model, after all.

Changing the Torah and making it more fashionable, aside from preventing its perpetuation, is never really an improvement anyway. Hashem made it the way it is because that's the way it works. The Torah is perfect, and perfection cannot be improved. Any modifications can only detract from it. That it why we are instructed: "Do not add to the matter that I am commanding you, and do not subtract from it" (Devorim 4:2).

It's obvious why removing aspects of the Torah is wrong; but even additions are forbidden. That which is perfect does not need improvement. And once man adds to the Torah, he shows that he considers it to be in need of alteration, which is the first step on the path to essentially reforming it according to his whims.

This lesson is especially important for the leaders of the Jewish People. Although placed in a position of power, they are to remember that the salt of the Jewish People doesn't need preserving, and any attempts to alter it are harmful and forbidden. Newly-crowned kings are paraded on mules, the animal that remind them that changing Hashem's work only detracts from it:

" . . . King David has made Shlomo king . . . And they have caused him to ride on the king's mule" (Melochim I 1:44).

It's often difficult to understand the wisdom of the Torah. It might be tempting to tamper with it, to alter it, to improve it.

"Rabbi Yehuda expounded . . . What does it mean `All the kings of the earth shall acknowledge You, Hashem?' . . . When the Holy One said `I [am Hashem your G-d]' and `You shall not have [any other gods],' the nations of the world said, He is expounding for His own honor; but when He added `Honor your father and mother,' they retracted this and acknowledged [the authority and wisdom of] the first commandments" (Kiddushin 31a).

The first commandments, which teach of man's duties to his Creator, were seen as irrelevant. Does Hashem really have anything to do with us? And is there any practical benefit to observing Shabbos, when bread has to be put on the table?

But when the laws that govern interpersonal relationships were given, such as that of honoring one's parents, it was obvious to all that the Torah's instructions are not irrelevant and obscure whims. It became clear that the Torah - - all of the Torah -- is a precisely crafted system that perfectly governs human society.

But the commandment of "Honor your father and mother" also reminds us of a specific point: that we are to acknowledge and respect the natural order of things. It's not only the Torah that is Hashem's creation -- the entire world is His handiwork. It is forbidden to crossbreed animals. We may not try to reform the natural world, and we may not try to reform the Torah.

The song of the mule is, "All the kings of the earth shall acknowledge You, Hashem, for they have heard the sayings of Your mouth." The mule, that seemingly fantastic innovation which turns out to be sterile and stubborn, reminds us to acknowledge that Hashem knows what's best. Attempts to alter and improve upon His work are pointless and doomed.

Rabbi Nosson Slifkin learns at the Mirrer Yeshiva and teaches at Ohr Somayach. He is the author of the Focus Series on the parsha, and Seasons of Life: The Reflection of the Jewish Year in the Natural World, all published by Targum Press. Awaiting publication is Nature's Song, an English commentary on Perek Shirah, from which this essay is extracted.

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