A Horse, a Horse, My Kingdom for a Horse1
BY RABBI MOSHE MILLER
Haman was the first one to associate the idea of happiness with Adar. The Talmud2 tells us that he rejoiced when the lottery chose Adar because Adar was the month of Moshe’s death.3 He reasoned that it would be an auspicious time to destroy the Jews, making him happy. But how would Moshe’s death assist Haman’s plot? In other words, what is the connection between Moshe’s death and Purim?
After the death of Moshe’s sister Miriam, Am Yisrael lost its miraculous source of water in the desert, the well that accompanied them throughout their wanderings.4 The people complained of thirst, and G-d told Moshe to take his staff and speak to a rock in the Jewish people’s presence, which would then provide water in response to his request. However, Moshe hit the rock with his staff instead of speaking to it. Furious with him, G-d decreed that he will not be the one to lead Am Yisrael to the Promised Land, condemning him to die in the wilderness.
The midrash explains Moshe’s failure:
[If you had spoken to the rock] to bring forth water, it would have done so. Then, Yisrael would have derived a lesson [of supreme importance] by a fortiori logic. Yisrael would have concluded that if a rock that is neither punished nor rewarded for its actions obeys G-d’s commands, how much more must we [who are rewarded and punished for our actions] obey G-d’s commands?5
This logic is patently absurd. Moshe addresses the one unprogrammed entity in Creation, the one creature with free will – human beings – and demands behavior of them based on the behavior of all the programmed entities in Creation that do not have free will! Whenever we face an apparent absurdity in the Torah, we must escape the boundaries of our thinking. We must realize that the Torah teaches us something with this ludicrous logic that contradicts everything we thought we knew. And it turns out that the only way to understand this bewildering logic is through Purim.
There is a striking midrash that lifts the veil:
“Hashem, You are a dwelling” (Tehillim 90:1) teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He is the dwelling of the world, and the world is not the dwelling of the Holy One. Rabbi Abba bar Yudan said, ‘think of a warrior who rides on a horse with many weapons on his right and left. The horse depends on the rider, and the rider does not depend on the horse, as the verse states, “That You ride on Your horses (Chabakuk 3:8).’”6
A visitor from another planet who sees small bipeds riding horses might understandably think the horses are giving directions. They are, after all, much larger and more powerful than the men riding them. But, upon further observation, he would understand that the horse is just an engine generating energy. It is, in fact, the small biped, the rider, who is directing the horse. This midrash suggests that the world is comparable to a horse, and G-d is its rider. Humankind produces prodigious energy, but the rider determines the uses.
It is well known that G-d’s name does not appear in the Megillah. However, the midrash teaches that wherever the text uses the word, HaMelech, “the king”, unaccompanied by the name Achashverosh, it can refer to G-d Himself.7 In light of this, consider Haman’s answer to Achashverosh’s question about honoring a man the king wishes to esteem. This man, answers Haman, should be placed on “a horse on which the king has ridden”. If this HaMelech refers to G-d, then the horse that G-d rides is the world itself. And if Haman views himself as the rider of this horse, he believes that he will both produce energy and direct it. In which case, the “turnabout”, “v’nahafoch hu”,8 is the realization that human beings do not do any directing. No matter what we do, the utilization and impact of our deeds have little to do with the plans we make, as we all discover throughout our lives. Our work often leads to a completely different result than what we imagined. Indeed, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.9
This penetrating insight is the essence of the a fortiori argument that Moshe failed to teach the Jewish people. His failure stemmed from his assumption that people are innately different from rocks or computers. Rocks invariably obey G-d’s commands, just as computers obey human instructions. We cannot deduce, a fortiori, that humans should abide by G-d’s commands because rocks and computers are not free agents, whereas humans are. But from the point of view of purpose in Creation, the argument is perfectly reasonable. The logic suggests that G-d has specific expectations for the outcome of Creation. For humans to fulfill Divine expectations, they must follow instructions. If they do, they will be rewarded; if they don’t, however, nothing will change. Creation will turn out the way G-d wants it to, no matter what humans do. The only difference human action makes is how Creation affects them, not how humans affect Creation. Human activity can result in personal reward or punishment. But there is no way that human effort will make a difference in the Divine plan’s outcome.
There was one historical moment when this truth came vividly to life. An astonishing scene in the Megillah contains what may be the most momentous dialogue in the entire Tanach.10 When Mordechai hears of Haman’s genocidal decree, he sends a message to Esther that she must intercede with the king. Esther replies that it’s hazardous to seek an audience with the king without an invitation, a perfectly reasonable response. We would expect Mordechai to answer, “Esther, my dear, this is the moment for you to fulfill your destiny. Isn’t it obvious that you were installed as queen for this opportunity to mediate on behalf of your people? You shouldn’t even be considering the possible consequences for yourself.” But he does not.
Instead, Mordechai says the most remarkable thing. “Esther, you don’t need to interfere on our behalf. Surely, you didn’t think I wanted you to appear before the king to save the Jewish people! Whether you go to Achashverosh or not, the Jewish people will be saved. The only difference your intervention makes is to you. If you don’t go in, you and your father’s house will be lost. If you do go in, you will win eternity. And you will redeem your great-grandfather Shaul’s mistake in allowing Haman’s great-grandfather Agag to live long enough to reproduce.11 But your intercession won’t make the slightest difference to anyone else – only to you.” This profound truth is precisely what Moshe was meant to teach Am Yisrael in the desert. We were supposed to derive from this superficially silly reasoning that G-d’s plan for the world will always succeed – no matter what we do or don’t do. The only difference free will can make concerns the reward you will receive or the punishment you will suffer. Free will allows you to be part of G-d’s plan or to withdraw from it. Nothing more or less.
Human beings will always be engines producing energy. We have the option to decide how that energy will be used. We have the right of first refusal. And so Mordechai says: “Would you like to intervene, Esther, or would you prefer someone else achieve G-d’s goal? But make no mistake – salvation will be accomplished no matter your choice.”
This is how Purim became the antithesis of Moshe’s death. And this is why Haman was wrong to be excited by his lottery’s results. He would have been correct to rejoice had we still suffered from Moshe’s failure to teach our people the lesson of the rock. Fortunately, Haman was wrong – for Mordechai and Esther understood that our choices only affect ourselves but G-d bestrides the world like a rider straddles a horse.
1 William Shakespeare, Richard III.
2 Megillah 13b.
3 Kiddushin 38a.
4 Ta’anit 9a.
5 Midrash Aggadah, Bamidbar 20:8. Rashi bases his commentary on two verses – Bamidbar 20:12 and Devarim 32:51 – on this midrash.
6 Bereishit Rabbah 68:9.
7 Esther Rabbah 3:10.
8 Turnabout is a central theme of the Megillah’s story as expressed in the verse, “There was a turnabout and the Jews prevailed over their enemies.” (Esther 9:1).
9 This profound observation is widely attributed to John Lennon, who included it in his song, Beautiful Boy (1980). The first attribution, however, is to comic strip author Allen Saunders in Reader’s Digest magazine (January 1957).
10 Esther 4:8–15.
11 Shmuel I 15:9 and Megillah 13a.
Rabbi Moshe Miller is the author of Rising Moon: Unraveling the Book of Ruth, described by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l as “A bold, original and deeply thought-provoking work.” He is also the author of the forthcoming book, Things You Should Know: A Brief Guide for the Newly Perplexed.