Before the makkah (disease) Hashem prepares the refuah (cure). Yeshaya HaNavi began the rebuke of his nation with those words: “The ox knows its owner; the donkey the stall of its master; Yisrael doesn’t know, My nation doesn’t contemplate” (Yeshaya 1:3).
Rashi explains what he was saying. The ox doesn’t change its nature. It doesn’t say, “I will no longer plow.” The donkey doesn’t say, “I will no longer haul loads.” Each animal follows its nature, unquestioningly doing what it was created to do. Klal Yisrael, however, is different. You have veered off course and changed your ways. And so, you are lower than the animals created to serve you.
This Rashi is difficult to understand. When a man mounts a horse, the man may weigh 150 pounds, the horse more than 2,000. Yet the man commands the horse to ride, gallop, turn, and stop. And the horse obeys. Why does the huge, powerful horse submit to the will of the little, weak man?
The reason is because that is the nature of a horse. Its instinct is to obey. It doesn’t think about it. It doesn’t decide to yield. Built into the very being of the horse is a temperament of subservience to its master.
Man, however, wasn’t constructed that way. Man has conflicting wishes and desires. Man has forces pulling him in competing directions. So how can Rashi compare the nature of a beast, which was created to comply, to that of man, which is so different?
The answer to this question is based on a more focused understanding of human nature. Chovos Ha’Levovos (Sha’ar Avodas Elokim) explains that Hashem created man out of two distinct parts: the nefesh hasichli (soul) and the nefesh habahami (animal instincts). The nefesh hasichli comes from the upper worlds, and so it only wants to do that which is right and proper. It only wants to serve Hashem and accomplish great things. Its very nature is to strive for perfection.
The nefesh habahami, on the other hand, is shaped by base instincts and desires. Much like any animal in the wild kingdom, man was preprogrammed with all the impulses and drives needed for his survival. This part of man hungers for things. It doesn’t think about consequences or results. It can’t see into the future. It is made up of hungers and appetites.
Man is a synthesis – a perfect balance between two competing forces. If he chooses to listen to his pure nefesh, he grows and accomplishes, reaching his potential and purpose in Creation. If he chooses to listen to his animal instincts, then he destroys his grandeur and majesty, becoming lower than even the behaimah. What we know as free will is this ability to choose which of his natures he will listen to.