It starts slowly, and then little by little we lose our way. It’s not that we give up following the dictates of the Torah, only we become colder to them, losing the bren that was once ours. The Torah tells us in parashas Shoftim: “Only he [the Jewish king] will not have too many horses for himself, so that he will not return the people to Egypt in order to increase horse” (Devarim 17:16). This passage is enigmatic, in that the first mention of horses is in the plural while the latter is singular.
The Chofetz Chaim explains that this is a warning about how the yetzer hara works. He starts on the king with a simple idea: horses. In those days, horses were needed for the army, so what could be simpler than the king acquiring as many as possible? But then the old trickster sets things rolling. Suddenly, it’s horses and more horses. They are no longer a means to an end, they are the end itself. This spiral lead to the king ultimately being willing to trade his people’s freedom just for one more horse!
We are all kings, rulers of our own personal kingdom. We start accumulating things that seem important, but with each addition, we find we need more. The action of acquisition clouds our minds, and we become desensitized to our real needs. Soon we find ourselves obsessed with the “horses” of life, and can find ourselves back in slavery just for one more horse in the stable. Every time we think of life’s horses, a little bit of the bren goes cold. Soon we are in shul, tallis over our head, thinking of the next horse. This is all the yetzer hara wants; he doesn’t need us to throw away our tefillin or give up our Shabbos. No, just think horses, that’s all.
Gutte Yidden throughout the ages have spoken of heisser Tehillim, for in its words we can find the stuff that can ignite our souls. In this kapitel, David shows us the manner in which “the varemer Yid” approaches life.
“I said, I will guard my ways so as not to sin with my tongue. I will guard my mouth as with a muzzle while the evildoer is still in front of me.'” There are so many distractions. In today’s world, they need not be horses; other things will do. The point is that such enticements dampen one’s vitality. Every time we think or talk of mundane folly, we lesson the energy within us. When the evildoer who seeks to lead us astray stands in our midst, we must hold ourselves back from using our energy in foolish ways.
Let me share just one example: You are a fine upstanding fellow who is trying to help your community in some important project. The yetzer hara is not quite pleased with all this, so he sends someone along with a bit of lashon hara, or a few well-chosen remarks that will definitely set you off. David is telling us, “Keep shtum. Don’t talk!” Not only so that you don’t fall into the sin of evil gossip, but also because you will get heated up, your energy will be misspent, and hence your ability to focus on what’s real will weaken. There is just so much emotion a person can bring into his life, so don’t waste it.
It sounds very simple, but it is one of the most difficult things we can face. “Put it behind you” is easier said then done. Things do bother us, and we do get hurt! However this should be seen for what it is just horses.
I became mute with silence. I held my peace, for the good, and my pain intensified. The best reply is mute silence. This seems a coward’s way out, but is, in fact, heroic. In every life, things are constantly bubbling. There’s the family member who doesn’t care, the neighbor who demonstrates his disrespect and even the loved one who seems selfish. All this is painful, but David tells us to remain still.
My heart grew hot within me. As I contemplated, a fire blazed. Finally, I spoke out with my tongue: “Let me know my end, Hashem, and the measure of my days. Let me know my lifespan.” If we contain ourselves, focusing on Hashem, then the warmth, the “fire” of tefilla will grow. You think I wasn’t listening, that I didn’t care? It’s not true! While I was thinking deeply, the bren of my love for Hashem was percolating. Now I can call forth all my energy and use my tongue to speak to Him. My words will flow with a cleaving sweetness because I have not become frozen through the foolishness around me. After all, does anyone know the measure of his days? Can anyone truly appreciate the finite time they have been given?’ None of us knows anything; it’s all in Hashem’s hands. One gift is ours: the ability to speak of these truths with the warmth of true conviction.
Until you have seen a Yid daven with unsophisticated hislahavus, you haven’t seen davening. When I was a student in Eretz Yisrael, I once hid behind a bookshelf to watch my Rebbe daven a simple Shacharis. It was his singular custom that every once and a while he would pace during the tefilos. Sometimes he would disappear into his private room, and it was in that room that I hid.
All of a sudden, he came storming into the room. He was up to Az Yashir, and in one huge gasp he cried out “Az!” and ripped his shirt open! “Look into my heart, Tatte in heaven!” His face was aflame, and tears streamed down his silver beard. I felt that he was actually offering his entirety to Hashem. There was no pretence, no show. There were no self- imposed walls.
Friends, that Yid was davening. He was on a different plane, and nothing said or done here among us lesser souls could matter. Our thoughts were all just horses.
David continues, Every man walks overshadowed, pursuing futile passions. He piles up wealth but does not know who will collect it. We seem so superficial sometimes. We run about vainly gathering bigger, better and more “stuff,” but for whom? Do we know what the morrow will bring? We think that bank balances are manmade, and that we can insure ourselves forever. This is the result of that wicked voice telling us about horses.
And now, what do I seek, my Master? I yearn for You! Save me from all my transgressions. Do not disgrace me in front of the degenerate. It’s all a façade. What is real is the moment spent burning with a desire to do a mitzva burning, just aflame with love for Hashem. Get me away from life’s horses; let me not be among those who have wasted their life with nothingness. This type of yearning, this inner force of spiritual energy, is that which David calls for. It’s nothing less, but it can be ours if we don’t degenerate and stumble on the horses.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Torah.org.