Ethics Now and Then 95 – Avot 5:23

Pirkei Avot 5:23 

Judah ben Tema said: 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. He used to say: The brazen-faced is headed for Gehinnom; and the shamefaced for the Garden of Eden. May it be Thy will O Lord our God and God of our fathers, that the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days, and grant us our portion in Thy Torah.


Judah ben Tema said: 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.

The book of Job confirms that we humans are able to learn much about life by observing the behaviour of animals: “He teaches us through the beasts of the earth, and makes us wise through the birds of the sky” (35:11). In this mishnah, Judah ben Tema directs our attention to four specific animals from which we can learn and would do well to imitate in our endeavors to “do the will of our Father in Heaven.” This should be the aim of all our efforts in life, as it was Yeshua’s, who said: “Father… not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42), also, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:50). And He taught us to pray,

“Our Father…may Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven” (Matt. 6:10).

Our Father, indeed, has spelled out His will for us in His Word. However, Irving J Bunim points out that another Sage, Rabbi Yochanan, comments: “…had we not received the Torah, we would learn modesty [in personal bodily functions] from the cat, [the wrongness of] robbery from the ant, marital faithfulness from the dove, etc.”

The four animals referenced in this mishnah by Judah ben Tema are:

1. The leopard, from which we can learn boldness.

Seeking the will of our Father through study and prayer requires intense focus and concentration. A large factor in developing this skill is to be bold enough to remove our attention from any external distractions, such as when friends or others may want to distract us from the things of God and  from living a life set apart to Him. To act contrary to the social norm requires courage and the single-minded boldness of the leopard who unselfconsciously focuses on his prey and pursues it with great intent.

The Hebrew word עז – az – bold, as in az ca’namer – bold as a leopard, also carries the implication of “a constancy and intensity that ultimately prevail.” ** In Proverbs 21:30, Solomon uses the term in, “Love is as strong [az] as death.” Through the process of aging, death constantly and surely encroaches until it triumphs over every life. Irving Bunim  adds, “So should our love be for our Creator – the love we express through [obedience] to the Torah and its mitzvoth: so constant , intense, persistent, that it must prevail against all obstacles.”***

2. The eagle, from which we learn to go higher in our quest for intimacy with our Creator.

The eagle flies alone and reaches greater heights than any other bird. We can only achieve success in our quest for a deeper and more intimate relationship with our Father God personally and alone with Him. As we grow in knowledge of Him and His ways, we must “walk it out” on earth and with the others in our lives. As we do this, our love for Him grows and our spirits can soar to ever greater heights and closer communion with the Beloved of our souls.

David the Psalmist makes an interesting comment on the eagle: With the blessing of the Almighty…”your youth will be renewed like the eagle” (103:5). A similar comment is found in the words of the Sages: “Scholars of Torah, the older they grow, the clearer, wiser, and more settled and orderly their minds grow…but as for the ignorant, the older they grow the more foolish and distraught their mind grows.”**** Everything in nature dies, except for the mind and spirit of man. When we apply our lives to the Word and will of our Father, as we see so perfectly demonstrated in His anointed Son Yeshua, we retain the lightness and purity of the very young. One’s spirit constantly drinks and is refreshed from the true fountain and source of life.

3. The deer, from which we learn eagerness and speedy efficiency in doing the will of our Father.

We see many occasions in Scripture where the righteous hurry to do a good deed. Our forefather Abraham is the first role model in this regard, as we see in the incident of the three strangers to whom he extended hospitality. In Genesis 1:6-7, notice how many ‘hurrying’ words there are in just two verses:

And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.” And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it unto the servant; and he hasted to dress it.

The desire to accomplish a good deed as quickly as possible, and to not waste any time in delaying or lazy dawdling, indicates a heartfelt enthusiasm in wishing to act in accord with the Father’s will.

We read in the opening verses of Psalm 42.

“As a deer pants for flowing streams,so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”

Just as a deer runs swiftly to a source of water when it is thirsty, bounding over every obstacle in its path, so should we eagerly pursue the living water of the Word of God . Even when faced with deterrents or difficulties, we must diligently make time for study and application of the teachings of God. Without this water for our souls we are in danger of spiritual dehydration and all the connected ills. Rather, aim to remain as alert and swift as the deer.

4. The lion, from which we learn the power derived from courage and strength to stand our ground.

When we have accomplished the traits of the leopard, eagle and deer, we then can stand in the strength of a lion. The lion is self assured and confident in his title of King of the Animal Kingdom. A connection is made between a lion and Samson. Samson, of course, had great physical strength but what is alluded to by Judah ben Temah is moral strength and courage.

In Pirkei Avot 4:1, Ben Zoma taught:

“Who is strong? He who subdues his evil inclination.”

True strength of character lies in having self control and being able to discipline one’s baser urges – to overcome the yetzer ha’ra, the inclination to do evil. When we can rule over ourselves, and train our will to work in harmony with the will of our Father in Heaven, then we can stand like a king and, in His authority, accomplish the Kingdom work He has assigned for each of us to do.

He used to say: The brazen-faced is headed for Gehinnom; and the shamefaced for the Garden of Eden. 

Although Judah ben Temah encourages us to be bold and courageous in our service of God, he points out the difference here between ‘brazen faced’ and ‘shamefaced.’ Even a very religious person, who does many good deeds outwardly, faces the danger of becoming arrogant and self-righteous and can pride himself in his power and authority over others. He then can become ‘brazen’ and not see or ancknowledge his faults and weaknesses; thus he cannot repent of them and will face the punishment of Gehinnom.

To be ‘shamefaced’ in this context does not mean to be constantly ashamed. It is a quality more in line with ‘bashful’ as in the teaching of Rava:

“Whoever has these three distinguishing marks – compassion, bashfulness, deeds of kindness – it is certain that he is a descendant of Abraham.”***** 

Bashfulness is both a humility that does not seek self promotion and a sensitive conscience that responds to any action, word or thought that is not pleasing to the Lord. We need to remain ashamed to sin, to recognize when we do and repent of it and endeavor to overcome it. This kind of healthy shame, as opposed to condemnation, opens the way for repentance and repentance keeps us in right standing with our Father.  This, in turn, assures us of a home with Him in Paradise.

May it be Thy will O Lord our God and God of our fathers, that the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days, and grant us our portion in Thy Torah.

The fact of the Holy Temple once again standing in Jerusalem indicates that the Jewish people are once again settled in the Land and the wearisome, unending battle against our foes, whether external or internal, is settled in peace. Perhaps swords have been turned into plowshares and the wonderful promises in Isaiah have been fulfilled. The leopard is lying down with a kid, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together and :

“They shall not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters fill the sea.”(11:6-9).

To that we can say a hearty, “Amen!”





* Irving J. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol 3 – Talmud Bavli, Erubin 100b

** Ibid., 213, quoting the commentary Yen L’vanon

*** Ibid., 213

**** Ibid., 214, quoting Talmud Bavli, Shabbath, 152a

*****Ibid., 218, quoting Talmud Bavli, Yebamoth, 79a

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