Horse and Rider: Who’s Leading Whom?

September 16, 2015

6 min read


Practical suggestions on how to prepare for Yom Kippur.

“Woe for the loss of a good servant. If not for the tree of good and evil, everyone would have a snake who’d carry their bags around for them.” (Story from the Talmud)

What on earth does this mean?

We all recognize the battle between our body and our soul, our baser instincts and our more elevated ones, between our id and our superego if you prefer the Freudian. It’s really life’s struggle, life’s challenge. It’s ongoing. It’s every day. In fact it’s every moment. It’s our moral choices, the ones that take us towards God or away from Him, that bring light into the world or, God forbid, darkness.

The snake in the Garden of Eden story was our baser instinct incarnate. He represented our yetzer hara, our desire to rebel, to disobey, to indulge our appetites and our ego. Once Adam and Eve ate, these desires became internalized rather than external and the battle began.

But the strange story is telling us something deeper – that, even now, with the right attitude, we can recalibrate our relationship to our yetzer hara.

It should be our servant. It should carry our bags. In other words, we should use it – its energy and its power – to accomplish good in the world. We should be its master. It’s only when our body controls us that we make mistakes, that our world and our focus are out of sync.

Our sages compare it to a horse and rider – with our soul the rider and our body the horse. The horse is strong and powerful and the rider needs the horse in order to get where he needs to go. But the rider must be in charge and determine the direction – and not give over that responsibility to the horse. It sounds absurd when we put it in those terms and yet we do it all the time.

As I said, this is our life’s constant challenge. We have so many opportunities to be the rider, to be the leader, to be a soul and not a body. And we have exciting moments when succeed, when we sit masterfully astride our horse and move strongly forward – and, unfortunately, discouraging ones when we don’t, when the horse drags us through the mud.

Yom Kippur is the opportunity to repent and atone for those lost or missed opportunities and to make decisions that will enhance our ability to make the right choices next time. A few examples of body over soul moments:

We give in to frustration and anger – from road rage directed at an anonymous stranger (even muttering in the car is not our highest self) to frustration with our husbands – over small things – “Didn’t I ask you to take out the garbage before you left for work?” –and big –“ I told her she couldn’t have that/go there; why did you go behind my back and say yes?” to anger with our (mostly) defenseless children – over forgetting their lunch or not doing their homework or not being ready on time or, (the more serious) not being kind to their siblings.

We indulge in jealousy –perhaps fostered by our obsessive and counterproductive wasting of hours on Facebook

We give in to our desires – it’s not that it’s bad to break our diets or skip our exercise regimen; it’s when I allow my desires to determine my actions that I give the horse its head. When I eat that chocolate cake even though I’m full and I keep eating and eating or finish that carton of ice cream in bed (I don’t actually do that one anymore but everyone in my family remembers the days!) that I feel humiliated. Because I let my body win. I didn’t control my choices.

We are lazy, and critical, and worried and depressed. The list goes on. Giving in to any or all of these negative traits is letting the yetzer hara take control. We have to fight back.

We are so much more than our bodies but sometimes it just feels so hard so we let our bodies lead. We give up the fight. We let our bodies make our choices for us, decide our direction for us. We let the horse control the rider.

This year on Yom Kippur we want to make new choices.

In order to ensure this we need a plan. We need to choose one thing to work on – let’s say for example it’s lashon hara, speaking in a derogatory way about others. There is no point in saying “I’ll never speak lashon hara again.” Chances are we will. We’ll be in a situation and it will just be too tempting, too juicy…

So let’s pick one hour a day for 40 days that we won’t speak it. Let’s do in the merit of someone getting healthy or getting married etc. so we have extra motivation. We need to bribe the body (Even a promise of new shoes at the end can be effective! Trust me.)

Let’s do it at a time that works. Just like alcoholics avoid streets with familiar old bars and any other situations that trigger their “I want a drink” response, we also need to be strategic. If there’s one friend who always speaks gossip or with whom our relationship is based on it, we could definitely diminish our contact with her but at the very least, we shouldn’t call her during our lashon hara-free hour!

You don’t have to make your hours at two in the morning but you don’t have to make them at your hardest time either. They can be at work, when you usually exercise, at dinner time – for a more elevated dinner conversation.

For whatever you pick, I recommend 40 days not a month because 40 is a time of renewal and rebirth. The flood was 40 days and a new world was born.

Yom Kippur is also an opportunity for spiritual rebirth, to wipe the slate clean and start anew.

But it’s not magic. The opportunity to wipe the slate clean is a gift. The starting anew is up to us. It begins with recognizing who is the rider and who is the horse and owning up to our responsibility – and even celebrating it.

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