“The ox knows its owner; the donkey the stall of its master; Israel doesn’t know, My nation doesn’t contemplate.” – Yeshayah 1:3
With these words, Yeshayah HaNavi begins the rebuke of his generation, a generation that strayed, that has left the ways of the Torah and turned to other gods and foreign ways.
Rashi explains the depth and magnitude of Yeshayah’s rebuke. The ox doesn’t change its nature. It doesn’t wake up one morning and say, “I will no longer plow.” The donkey doesn’t say to its owner, “I will no longer haul loads.” Each animal follows the nature that was given to it, unquestioningly and dutifully doing that which it was created to do: serve man. But animals receive neither reward nor punishment for what they do. But if man fulfills that which he was created to do, then for eternity he will receive reward. If he sins, he will be punished. Yet Israel, the prophet is saying, has veered off course and changed its ways. And so they are far lower than the animals created to serve them.
This Rashi is very difficult to understand. If you have ever watched a man mount a horse, the following question might have crossed your mind: The man weighs 150 pounds; the horse weighs 1,150 pounds. The man is puny and weak; the horse is strong and mighty. Yet the pudgy man mounts the muscular horse, whip in hand, and commands the horse to ride, gallop, turn, and stop. Why doesn’t the horse just say, “No, I don’t want to bow to your will today”? Why does the powerful horse obey the weak man?
Most likely that question never crossed your mind, because the horse’s instinct is to obey. Built into the very being of the horse is a temperament of subservience to its master.
Man, however, is different. Man has wishes and desires, man has forces pulling him in competing directions, and man has a consciousness, an “I” that sits in deliberation and decides. In fact, the very reason man is given reward or punishment is because it is in his hands to choose. Of all the creations, man alone has free will. It is because of that free will that he is held accountable. So how can Rashi compare the nature of a beast to that of man?
The answer to this question is based on a more focused understanding of human nature.
The Chovos Ha’Levovos (Sha’ar Avodas Elokim) explains that Hashem created man out of two distinct parts: the nefesh hasichli and the nefesh habahami. The nefesh hasichli in man 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. It desires to help others and make a significant contribution. It was created with a need to emulate Hashem.
However, there is another part of man. A full half of man’s personality is shaped by base instincts and desires. Much like any animal in the wild kingdom, man was preprogrammed with all of 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 desires and appetites.
Man is a synthesis, a combination of opposites – a perfect balance between two competing natures. 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. When we refer to free will, we mean man’s ability to choose which of his inner natures he will listen to.
This seems to be the answer to this Rashi. Man is preprogrammed for greatness. The other half of man’s personality is screaming out for meaning, purpose and greatness. There is a powerful instinct within him that desires only what is proper. If man follows that side of his inner nature, he is pulled toward perfection. But that is the point; the need for perfection is built into his very nature. This isn’t something he needs to learn; it isn’t something he needs training in; it is part and parcel of his very being.