Keeping Control of the Reins Over our Passions (Parsha Shoftim)

This coming week’s (8/14/2021) Parsha is Shoftim (Deut. 16:18-21:9). In this week’s Torah portion we read:

When thou goest out to battle against thine enemies, and seest horses, and chariots, and a people more than thou, be not afraid of them: for the LORD thy God is with thee, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.
(Deut. 20:1 KJV)

This passage teaches us the virtue of courage, but Philo of Alexandria sees a deeper allegory in this passage. He writes:

(72) Therefore now, leaving the consideration of these neighing animals, and of the parties carried by them, investigate, if you will, the condition of your own soul. For in its several parts you will find both horses and a rider in the fashion of a charioteer, just as you do in external things. (73) Now, the horses are appetite and passion, the one being male and the other female. On this account, the one giving itself airs, wishes to be unrestrained and free, and holds its head erect, as a male animal naturally does; and the other, not being free, but of a slavish disposition, and rejoicing in all kinds of crafty wickedness, devours the house, and destroys the house, for she is female. And the rider and charioteer is one, namely the mind. When, indeed, the mounts with prudence, he is a charioteer; but when he does so with folly, then he is but a rider. (74) For a fool, through ignorance, is unable to keep hold of the reins; but they, falling from his hands, drop on the ground. And the animals, immediately that they have got the better of the reins, run on in an ill-regulated and unrestrained course. (75) But the man who has mounted behind them, not being able to take hold of anything by which he may steady himself, falls, and lacerating his knees and his hands and his face, like a miserable man as he is, he bitterly weeps over his disaster; and after hanging by his feet to the chariot after he has been overturned, he is suspended, with his face upwards, lying on his back; and as the chariot proceeds, he is dragged along, and injured in his head, and neck, and both his shoulders; and then, being hurried on in this direction and in that, and being dashed against everything which lies in the way, he endures a most pitiable death. (76) He then meets with an end, such as I have been describing; and the chariot, being lightened by his fall and bounding along violently, when, at last, it is dashed to the ground in the rebound, is easily broken to pieces, so that it can never again be joined or fastened together. And the animals, being now released from everything which could restrain them, proceed at random, and are frantic, and do not cease galloping on, till they are tripped up and fall, or till they are hurried over some high precipice, and so are dashed to pieces and destroyed. (77) In this manner, then, it seems that the whole chariot of the soul is destroyed, with its passengers; and all through the carelessness or unskilfulness of the driver. But it is desirable for them that such horses, and such drivers, and riders, so wholly without skill, should be destroyed, in order that the faculties of virtue may be roused; for when folly has fallen, it follows of necessity that wisdom must rise up. (78) On this account Moses, in his passages of exhortation, says, “If thou goest forth to battle against thy enemies, and if thou seest numbers of horses, and riders, and people, be not afraid, because the Lord thy God is with Thee.” (Deut. 20:1.) For we must neglect anger and desire, and, in short, all the passions, and indeed the whole company of reasonings, which are mounted upon each of the passions as upon horses, even if they believe that they can exert irresistible strength; at least, all those must do so who have the power of the great King holding a shield over them, and in every place, and at every time, fighting in their defence.
(On Husbandry 72-78)

(62) “For if,” says Moses, “you go forth to war against your enemies and see a horse,” the emblem of arrogant and restive passion which scorns all control, “and a rider,” the symbol of the mind devoted to the service of the passions, riding upon it, “and a great body of your people,” admirers of those before-mentioned passions, and following in a solid phalanx, “you shall not be terrified so as to flee from them,” for you, though only a single person, shall have a single being for your ally, “because the Lord your God is on your side;” (Deut. 20:1.)
(Migration of Abraham 62)

We can overcome, not only fear, but also gain dominion “over anger and desire, and, in short, all the passions, and indeed the whole company of reasonings, which are mounted upon each of the passions as upon horses” if our rational mind has control of the reins and our passions do not run out of control, such that our mind is just a rider being pulled along by our emotions for an out of control ride that will dash our souls to pieces like an out of control chariot.

I have been writing these Hebraic Stoicism weekly Torah Parsha blogs for several weeks now, starting back at the weekly reading for the beginning of Exodus. We are now halfway thru Deuteronomy. Research for this blog takes time. No one, to my knowledge, has done this since the Jewish community of Alexandria was destroyed by Rome in 116 C.E.

This is likely the kind of teaching once given in the Great Synagogue of Alexandria, of which the Talmud says:

It has been taught, R. Judah stated, He who has not seen the double colonnade of Alexandria in Egypt has never seen the glory of Israel. It was said that it was like a huge basilica, one colonnade within the other, and it sometimes held twice the number of people that went forth from Egypt. There were in it seventy-one cathedras of gold, corresponding to the seventy-one members of the Great Sanhedrin, not one of them containing less than twenty-one talents of gold, and a wooden platform in the middle upon which the attendant of the Synagogue stood with a scarf in his hand. When the time came to answer Amen, he waved his scarf and all the congregation duly responded. They moreover did not occupy their seats promiscuously, but goldsmiths sat separately, silversmiths separately, blacksmiths separately, metalworkers separately and weavers separately, so that when a poor man entered the place he recognized the members of his craft and on applying to that quarter obtained a livelihood for himself and for the members of his family.
(b.Sukkot 51b)

But I must redeem my time with prudence. If you are benefiting from this blog, please let me know. I need your feedback. I am going to have to make some life decisions soon about what I can afford to spend time on, and what I cannot. So leave me feedback, and let me know what you think, is this blog befitting you?

Most importantly If you would like to see more of these weekly Stoic Torah studies, please support this work of restoration of Hebraic Stoicism by donating by Paypal to

One thought on “Keeping Control of the Reins Over our Passions (Parsha Shoftim)”

  1. Shalom Rabbi James

    I have indeed never read anywhere this work of Judeo-Alexandrian philosophy. It is an important work and I thank you for it !
    But I understand that the lack of time forces you to make choices.
    Our little Nazarene community in Belgium has been supporting you for a long time, including financially, and will continue to do so with our present limited means.
    May Adonai give you the strength and the means to continue His work.

    Shalom uvracha


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