May 19, 2024
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Putting the Soul in the Driver’s Seat

Every teenager looks forward to the day they get their driver’s license. Freedom! Yet, the push for self-driving cars remains strong. Maybe we won’t need driver’s licenses anymore! I’m not holding my breath. Most self-driving vehicles still need a (licensed!) driver to take control at various times. The big question remains: who is responsible if something bad happens — the driver or the self-driving car?

ParshatPinchas reminds us to keep focused on who is doing the driving in our lives. Pinchas acted boldly and brazenly to restore the honor of Hashem. For this, he received a treaty of shalom — peace. The Seforno explains that Pinchas’ gift of peace was the gift of longevity, as Pinchas lived for a very long time. Indeed, some opinions say it was an additional 300 years. The Midrash says that Pinchas is Eliyahu HaNavi, who never died! Why did he merit such a spectacular reward?

The following narrative will enlighten us: The Greek Emperor Antoninus had a close relationship with Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi (otherwise referred to as Rebbi or Rabbeinu HaKadosh). The Gemara records a conversation where Antoninus told Rebbi that he had an idea for the defense against prosecution for sin. He said that a person has a body and a soul. When a person dies, both body and soul can claim innocence. The body can say, “I can’t be held responsible, since I can’t do anything without the soul animating me. Look at me — I’m totally motionless, since the soul has left my body.” The soul, in turn, will claim, “I can’t be held responsible, as I can’t do anything without the action of the body. I have no form or substance.”

Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi responded to Antoninus with a parable (now well-known). Someone owned an orchard and hired two people to stand guard against thieves. One guard was blind, and the other was crippled. One day, the blind guard turned to the cripple and said, “The fruit smells so delicious, perhaps we should eat a few.” The cripple said, “I’d like to take one, but I can’t walk to the tree.” The blind man said, “I have an idea. I’ll place you on my shoulders. You can see, so you’ll guide me where to walk and then take the fruit from the tree, so we can both eat it.”

The next day, their boss saw lots of missing fruit! When interrogated, the guard said, “I can’t walk, so it couldn’t be me.” The blind guard said, “I can’t see, so it couldn’t be me.” The boss figured out their scheme — which had been to put the cripple on the blind man’s shoulders — and gave them both a lashing. Rebbe told Antoninus that this will be the response of Hashem to his suggested defense against the accusation of sin. Rav Wolbe explains that the body is compared to the blind man, since the body has limited perspective regarding spiritual reality. The soul is compared to the cripple, who cannot move in this world without the body. Since body and soul work together, neither one can absolve themselves of their actions.

Similarly, a car has a driver. The car is the blind man who doesn’t know where to go. It has power, potential and ability to transport a person; but if the car drives on its own without direction, it will crash. The driver needs to direct and control the car to reach the desired destination.

Meanwhile, the body and the soul have an internal conflict. The body craves physical pleasure and the soul craves connection and closeness to Hashem, which is accomplished through keeping mitzvos, learning Torah and performing acts of chesed. The struggle begins the moment we wake up. The soul says, “Wake up, it’s time to daven and thank Hashem!” The body replies, “Hit the snooze button, I need more sleep.” The soul counters, “Quick, you’ll be late for Shacharis!” etc., etc. This conversation between body and soul happens all day long, in many forms. It continues all through life, until the soul separates from the body.

Pinchas received longevity by achieving harmony between his body and soul. He was a peaceful person, not prone to violence. But his actions were governed entirely by his neshamah (soul), which — knowing well the difference between right and wrong — gave him the courage and brazenness to kill Zimri and Kozbi in one blow while they were engaged in licentious behavior. Because he exhibited totally appropriate control of his faculties, indicating that his soul would be able to live in harmony with his body for an extremely long time, Hashem gifted Pinchas longevity. It was the soul of Pinchas that was in the driver’s seat.

With Torah learning and proper focus, we too, can strive to unite body and soul — putting our soul in the driver’s seat — to successfully navigate the often challenging roads of life.


The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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