Are there any animals that we can learn from?

The Mishnah says: “Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion, to do the will of your Father in Heaven.”[1] What does this mean? Here is the answer from Rabbi Moshe Weiner of Jerusalem:

From the leopard, which uses its boldness for its survival, a person should learn to be bold in the service of G-d (which is necessary for his spiritual survival), whenever he needs boldness “to do the will of your Father in Heaven.” Therefore, one should not be ashamed or bashful when faced with people who scoff at him for serving G-d and doing the righteous thing. Even though humility is a good trait in general, and brashness in general is a vile trait, nevertheless, for the purpose of doing the right thing in the face of challenges, it is incumbent for a person to learn from the nature that G-d put in the leopard. With this he can motivate himself to be bold whenever his natural tendency is to feel embarrassment about other people’s denigrating thoughts or comments when they see he is rejecting sin and holding on to moral ways.

From the eagle, which uses its lightness to fly high with ease and swiftness to find and obtain its needs, a person should learn to move easily from place to place, and from one situation to the next, to do virtuous deeds and to be removed from wrong places and situations. One should not be heavy and lazy, and think that once he has already settled or fallen into a certain situation or level, it is acceptable to stay there. Rather, he should learn from the eagle to move on and fly higher in his own ways and in his service to G-d. Included in this is a very central theme: a person should guard and focus his eyes to only look at good things. Physically, his eyes should dart away and reject sights of immodest and sinful behaviors, both in the outside world and in the world he brings inside through the Internet, movies and television, etc. And in his mind’s eye, he should not look for evil in those around him, but rather look for their good qualities from the outset and give people the benefit of the doubt.

From the deer, which is renowned for its swiftness, a person should learn to always be swift and zealous to do good deeds and stay far away from sins. As soon as an opportunity to do a good deed presents itself, a person should swiftly accomplish it and not procrastinate, as the sage Ben Azzai said, “Run to [do even] an easy mitzvah (a commandment or good deed), and flee from transgression, for one mitzvah brings about another, and one transgression brings about another …,”  and as the sage Hillel said: “Do not say ‘when I have free time, I will study [Torah],’ for you may never have free time.”  The long-term goal of this contemplation is to habituate oneself to run after good deeds, even pushing oneself to do so, until it becomes second nature.

From the lion, which has great strength and is not afraid of any creature, a person should learn to have strength of heart and not be afraid of any opposition in the world – not those who oppose G-d’s Laws and the ways of justice and goodness, nor one’s own evil inclination which does the same – when he truly knows what G-d desires from him in any situation. So too, Rabbi Eliezer taught his young son, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, of blessed memory, “My dearest son … never fear anyone or anything except the Holy One, blessed be He!”

It is a principle in Torah that “from the positive, one can infer the negative.” Just as one can learn good traits from some animals to use in serving G-d, He put other traits into animals that should be viewed as negative and far below the dignity of any human being. A person can apply those standards as well, in both his private and social ways.

[1] “Ethics of the Fathers” 5:20,  in the name of  the sage Rabbi Yehudah ben Tema.

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