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Horses and Metaphoric Thinking: Parshat Shofetim

My grandson riding a horse

One of my grandchildren is spending her tenth grade in an American school where some of the sports on offer include: tennis, surfing, volleyball and riding horses.  She is inclining towards choosing horseback riding. While talking to her, I remembered that when she was still a baby her older brother and sister took riding lessons in Jerusalem. She was very excited that at the crossroads in her new neighborhood, you have to press a button in order to cross. She discovered that there is also a button to press at the height of a horseback rider. Both of us exchanged laughs on our zoom conversation. Naturally I googled this and found an answer to my question: What does the crossing for horses and pedestrians look like?(here)  “A Pegasus crossing is a type of crossing with special consideration for horse riders, with the control panel being positioned 2 meters above the ground to assist horse riders so they don’t have to dismount in order to operate the crossing.” Although this quotation is from an article about the United Kingdom, it appears that California, where my granddaughter is located has the second largest horse population in the entire country.

What does that have to do with this week’s parsha and haftara? In this week’s parshat Shoftim, there are guidelines for a king. God tells the children of Israel that it is up to them to decide whether to “set a king over” themselves. But it should only be a kinsman.

Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since יהוה has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.” And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. …. Thus, he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

What is it with horses? Why this emphasis on the king’s not having many horses or sending people back to Egypt to add to his horses.  It is true, he should also not have too many wives, or too much money and he should also not act as if he is better than the rest of us. Clearly horses are associated with Egypt and the charioteers of Pharaoh who chased after the Israelites and then drowned in the sea (Exodus 15). God doesn’t want the king (and His people) to  depend on horses and chariots to keep them safe. God wants to be the exclusive source of the people’s security.

Recently, in Israel our associations with horses are also somewhat negative. We have seen policemen at demonstrations patrolling on horses. Innocent demonstrators have been hurt. There is something about the height of a mounted policeman which enables himself to distance himself from the people below him and to perceive them as an “other” who has to be controlled.

In the Talmud the Sages taught with regard to the verse: “he shall not keep many horses (סוסים) or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses (סוס)” (Deuteronomy 17:16): One might have thought that he shall not have even enough horses for his chariot and riders. Therefore, the verse states: “For himself,” teaching that only if the horses are for himself, for personal pleasure, he shall not accumulate them, but he may accumulate horses for his chariot and riders. How, then, do we realize the meaning of “horses (סוסים)” in the verse? It is referring to idle horses, which serve no purpose other than glorifying the king. From where is it derived that even if the king has one horse that is idle, that he transgresses “he shall not accumulate”? The verse states: “For the sake of accumulating horses (סוס)” with the term for horses written in the singular (BT Sanhedrin 21b).

Thus, it would appear that a king who accumulates horses for his personal use or to make himself look good is behaving selfishly and doing so for self-aggrandizement. The railroads and light rail are today’s equivalent of the horse. A modern locomotive can have anywhere from 1000 to 18,000 horsepower, depending on the power source, model, and year of production. This week both the prime minister and transportation minister have been using modern day horses for personal publicity and were accordingly booed by the people with the headline: “Netanyahu cuts red ribbon for Tel Aviv’s Light Rail amid protests” (here).

There is an interesting parallel in 1 Samuel about the potential of corrupt rulers. When Samuel was old, he appointed his own sons to be judges, but they were corrupt: his sons did not follow in his ways; they were bent on gain, they accepted bribes, and they subverted justice. Because of this the elders came to him and demanded that he

appoint a king for them, to govern them so they could be like all other nations. Samuel wasn’t very happy about this. But God told him to listen to their demands, because “it is not you that they have rejected; it is Me they have rejected as their king.” God also tells Samuel to warn them about the consequences of having a king: “This will be the practice of the king who will rule over you: He will take your sons and appoint them as his charioteers and horsemen, and they will serve as outrunners for his chariots. He will appoint them as his chiefs of thousands and of fifties; or they will have to plow his fields, reap his harvest, and make his weapons and the equipment for his chariots.” And the list goes on: “He will take your daughters … seize your choice fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his courtiers. …. He will take a tenth part of your flocks, and you shall become his slaves. The day will come when you cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen; and the Lord will not answer you on that day.”

Despite Samuel’s warning the people insisted on having a king rule over them. “We must have a king over us, that we may be like all the other nations: Let our king rule over us and go out at our head and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8). It is clear that monarchy was not meant to be the ideal. However, people wanted a king and so they got one, warts and all.

FORGETTING AND FORGIVING

But from the beginning, God looked at the people’s desire for a king as a threat to his own reign.  God’s self-image is that of someone who dominates, who is easy to anger and yet also, will comfort and save His people when they make wrong choices. He is angry when he thinks the people are forgetting him, but also ready to forgive and take them back when they repent. And we see this in the haftarah of this week’s parsha.

HAFTARA FOR SHOFTIM (ISAIAH 51:12-52:12)

After a shaky marriage in which God almost destroys his people, God promises Israel that he will take her back, comfort her and will not do to her what he has done before, especially if she takes responsibility for her having sinned by forgetting God their Maker, and promises not to do so anymore. God makes clear that he is in total control:

For I the Eternal your God—Who stirs up the sea into roaring waves, whose name is God of Hosts—Have put My words in your mouth And sheltered you with My hand; I, who planted the skies and made firm the earth,

What began as an abusive relationship in which Israel drank of God’s wrath will now change; she will no longer be a doormat for God to stomp on when he is angry with her. Until now, the faithless Israel was victimized and unloved. This is what happens when God is angry.

She has none to guide her of all the children she bore; None takes her by the hand, Of all the children she reared.  These two things have befallen you: Wrack and ruin—who can console you? Famine and sword—how shall I comfort you?  Your sons lie in a swoon at the corner of every street— Like an antelope caught in a net— Drunk with the wrath of God, With the rebuke of your God.

Jerusalem is now put on a pedestal. God has returned to her. God is her king and ruler. God is now here, he will solve all her problems and in return for this protection, in exchange for happiness and good fortune Israel will relinquish her independence.

Awake, awake, O Zion! Clothe yourself in splendor; Put on your robes of majesty, Jerusalem, holy city! For the uncircumcised and the unclean Shall never enter you again.  Arise, shake off the dust,

God tells female Zion to clothe herself and get ready for their renewed relationship. What they take is akin to the vows of marriage. You will continue being in an exclusive relationship to me and I will take care of you. In exchange, you won’t go astray or worship other gods. If you behave you won’t be raped again by the enemy. You are mine and I am yours.

Assuredly, My people shall learn My name, Assuredly [they shall learn] on that day That I, the One who promised, Am now at hand. For GOD will comfort this people, Will redeem Jerusalem. GOD will bare a holy arm in the sight of all the nations, And the very ends of earth shall see the victory of our God.  For GOD is marching before you, The God of Israel is your rear guard.

But all this comes at a price. The minute the people backslide, God will no longer be there for them. They have to be on guard all the time and behave. This God is a temperamental one, who is interested in his reputation. He is there to comfort the people, but only if they repent and come back to Him and be in an exclusive relationship.

HORSES AS METAPHOR

Let’s return to the horses that I started out with. On the one hand horsepower (hp) is a unit of measurement used to express the rate at which mechanical energy is expended. But horses themselves in our passage in this week’s parsha are a metaphor: they threaten God’s exclusivity. They and their riders give the people a false sense of security. God should be the only one protecting His people, not the charioteers on horses. And even worse is the association of horses with the nation’s captivity in Egypt. If you depend on horses, and the might of an army and a king, the threat is that we might end up going back to a situation of slavery. Is there a limit to how much we can test God’s endurance? Will he continue to forgive and forget? We must always remember that God is benevolent, but if we reject him and choose other gods or trust in those who accumulate horses, He will punish us, as it states in opening to the Ten Commandments:

You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I your God am a jealous God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me.

Elsewhere it states that

God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin—yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”

There is a trickle down effect when our leaders (the charioteers) sin. It effects our behavior as well. If our leaders get away with misbehavior, why should we behave morally? The question is how much more “iniquity” can our corrupt leaders inflict on us? Clearly if they are allowed to continue to transgress and sin, we are dooming our children and future generations.  This pertinent question should dominate our everyday discourse and be a topic for discussion around the Shabbat table.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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