Rabbi Yehuda ben Teima says, “Be as brazen as a leopard, as light as an eagle, as swift as a gazelle, and as strong as a lion — to do the will of your Father in Heaven.”
The teaching by the great Torah Sage on our daf is actually a mishna taught in Pirkei Avot (5:20). Here we are taught to internalize four “animal” traits to enable each person to maximize his individual potential to do the will of Hashem.
One explanation for the mention of these four traits, associated with four aspects of a person’s ability to serve Hashem, is offered by one of the major classical commentaries on The Mishna, Rav Ovadiah from Bartenura. “Be bold like a leopard (which he describes not as a leopard, but as an “unnatural” crossbreed of a wild boar and a lioness) implores a person to not be embarrassed to ask his rabbi for further explanation if the student does not understand the Torah teaching sufficiently — “One who is embarrassed will not learn,” teach our Sages. “Be light like an eagle,” he explains, is to review what you have learned, and, if you really try, you will find that you will not be weary from the toil of your repeated study. “Run like a gazelle” means to persevere in your efforts to fulfill as many mitzvahs as you can, in the best manner possible. “Be brave like a lion” is to conquer any innate, inner inclinations you may have that tempt you to transgress the way of the Torah.
Another approach is offered by Rabbeinu Yaakov the son of the Rosh — also known as the Tur. (Orach Chaim 1) He relates each of the character traits that are lauded in the mishna to four main parts of a person’s body. “Be bold as a leopard” teaches that a person should embolden his mind and determination to not refrain from doing Hashem’s will, although he may encounter fools and dolts who delight in making fun of his fervent mitzvah fulfillment and Torah study. “Be light like an eagle,” the Tur explains, means to “fly in the heavens,” above it all, as it were, without seeing negative and improper sights. One should guard his eyes to be careful to not view anything that might lead to transgress the way of the Torah. It is well known that the sight of something inappropriate is the beginning of the transgression. “Run like a gazelle,” he writes, instructs a person that his feet should be used only for running to do good deeds and mitzvahs. “Be brave like a lion” is an instruction to strengthen one’s heart — the seat of emotion — to want to strive more and more to improve his following the way of Hashem. Be lionhearted. The Tur lines up the four essentials in the mishna with four parts of a person: mind, eyes, feet and heart — all to be used properly and to the fullest in the service of Hashem.
Rabbi Yechiel Michal Epstein — also known by his work called Aruch Hashulchan, an invaluable codification of all branches of halacha — suggests an alternative reason for there being four distinct teachings in the mishna. He notes that there is a concept that man is comprised of the four basic “elements”: fire, air, water and earth. The four traits in the mishna correspond to these fundamental building blocks: boldness corresponds with fire, which is very brazen and mighty; lightness with air, which is very lightweight and ethereal; running with water, which flows back and forth; and bravery/courage with the earth, which is strong and hard. Rabbi Epstein writes that he humbly asserts that the mishna means to teach the need for a person to constructively use all of these four elements of his physical being only for the sake of doing the will of Hashem, and not,
Rabbi Akiva Eiger cites a source who makes a fascinating observation in the mishna, providing a deeper understanding of the call to be az — brazen or bold. Let us look at the entire mishna. “Rabbi Yehudaben Teima would say: ‘Be brazen like a leopard, light like an eagle, fleeting like a deer and mighty like a lion — to do the will of your Father in Heaven. He would also say, ‘The brazen — to gehinnom, the bashful — to Gan Eden. May it be Your will, Hashem, our
Rabbi Akiva Eiger continues his explanation: Towards the end of the mishna we see that brazenness is an extremely negative trait: “The brazen — to gehinom”, whereas at the beginning of the mishna we are taught that it is positive to be brazen — be brazen like a leopard. It must be that this trait is generally bad, but can be positive if used in the correct way at the correct time. For example, in our times, before Mashiach, it is good to not be timid about speaking up to ask questions in order to learn Torah. A person who is embarrassed, lest he be seen as ignorant for asking questions in order to understand the Torah, will not learn Torah, explain our Sages. A person should be bold in seeking greater Torah knowledge and wisdom. In the future, however, in the time of Mashiach, the world will be filled with knowledge of Hashem and his Torah. Then, there will be no need to be brazen in order to understand and acquire the Torah, and any sign of brazenness will be considered negative and lead to gehinom, away from Hashem, as it were.
A parenthetical note: It is important to recall the words that we wrote as “Talmud Tips” on Eruvin 100b, where the gemara states, “Even if the Torah had not been given we would be able to learn modesty from the cat and we would have learned to not steal from the ant.” The Ben Y ehoyada points out that once the Torah was given, we are to learn these and other positive character traits only from the Torah, and not from animals. Animals also possess negative qualities, which one might be influenced by, whereas the Torah is pure righteousness and goodness. Here, too, the four traits mentioned in the mishna, although associated with animals, are learned only from our pure and holy Torah.
- Pesachim 112a