The Talmud - Eruvin 100b - cites the following verse concerning the One Creator of all life: "He teaches us from the animals of the land, and from the birds of the heavens He makes us wise" (Job 35:11).
"He teaches us from the animals of the land" – For the Creator implanted within them wisdom in order to teach us (Rashi on the Talmud).
The Talmud cites the above verse from Job in order to convey the message that each creature within the creation has something to teach us. As human beings created in the Divine image, we have the spiritual ability to recognize the trait within each creature that can serve as a good example for us; thus, the Talmud cites the following examples in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:
"If the Torah had not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, the avoidance of theft from the ant, marital fidelity from the dove, and good manners in marital relations from the rooster, who appeases his mate before having relations with her." (Ibid)
The Talmud only elaborates on the good manners of the rooster, so the commentator, Rashi, explains the other examples in the following manner:
"Modesty from the cat" - When the cat eliminates wastes from its body, it buries it; moreover, it does not eliminate in front of people.
"The avoidance of theft from the ant" - The ant relies on its honest labor, for it stores food in the summer for what it needs in the winter, as it is written, "Go to the ant, you sluggard, observe her ways and become wise; for though there is neither officer nor guard, nor ruler over her, she prepares her food in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest" (Proverbs 6:6-8). In addition, the ant does not take the food of another ant.
"Marital fidelity from the dove" - The dove only has relations with its mate.
The above teachings remind us that each creature within creation has a certain characteristic that we can emulate when we serve the Compassionate One. In this spirit, the Mishnah states in the name of the sage, Yehudah ben Tema:
"Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion to carry out the will of your Father in Heaven." (Pirkei Avos 5:23)
"Be bold as a leopard" – Although modesty is a recommended trait, there are occasions when one must have the boldness of the leopard when doing a mitzvah which is not popular within one's social circles. Such boldness is "holy chutzpah" – a trait which has often enabled the Jewish people to go against world opinion in their quest for Divine truth and justice. For example, when we lived in societies where people tried to persuade us or force us to worship a human being, we boldly proclaimed that we only serve the Compassionate One. And when they tried to convince us that the Messiah had already arrived, we would remind them of the Divine promise that the true Messiah will inaugurate an age of unity and shalom for human beings and all creatures, as the earth will then be filled with the knowledge of the Compassionate One (Isaiah 11:1-9).
"Light as an eagle" – As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains, we are to leave all earthy impediments behind and soar up to the Compassionate One. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, who recently passed away in Jerusalem, was a leading sage of "Mussar" – Torah teachings regarding ethics and personality refinement. In his work, "Alei Shur," Rabbi Wolbe offers the following explanation of how we can emulate the lightness of the eagle: Although the eagle is a heavy bird, it has large wings which enable it to soar to high altitudes. The human being is also a "heavy" creature due to the earthy nature of his body; nevertheless, the human being has special "wings" which can enable him to soar to a high spiritual level. These wings are "simcha" – joy! And Rabbi Wolbe cites the following teaching of Rabbi Chaim Vital (Sha'arei Kedusha): A person who rejoices in his portion and who rejoices when he does mitzvos will overcome his earthy nature. (Cited in "Mishel Avos")
"Swift as a deer" – We should run after mitzvos (Bartenura); moreover, we should not procrastinate in the performance of a mitzvah (Rabbi Hirsch).
"Strong as a lion" – We should use strength in overcoming all obstacles – both within and without – which can prevent us from achieving our ethical and spiritual goals (Rabbi Hirsch). As Pirkei Avos (4:1) states, "Who is strong? The one who subdues his personal inclination, as it is said, 'The one who is slow to anger is better than a mighty hero, and the one who rules over his emotions is better than a conqueror of a city' (Proverbs 16:32)."
The noted kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, is the author of, "The Palm Tree of Devorah" - an ethical work which offers a kabbalistic perspective on the mitzvah to emulate the Divine attributes. In this work, he writes:
"One should respect all creatures, recognizing in them the greatness of the Creator, Who formed the human being with wisdom; moreover, all creatures are imbued with the Creator's wisdom, and they are deserving of great respect, for the Maker of all - the Wise One Who transcends everything - is involved with their creation." (Chapter 2)
Rabbi Cordovero also cites the biblical phrase, "How great are Your works, O Compassionate One, You made them all with wisdom" (Psalm 104:24), and he concludes, "A person should therefore contemplate on the wisdom within them."
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. "Be bold as a leopard" - The commentator on the Mishnah, Rabbi Obadiah Bartenura, explains that boldness can also be helpful in one's Torah study. For example, if one does not understand what a teacher says, one should be bold and ask questions! As Hillel taught, "A bashful person cannot learn" (Pirkei Avos 2:6).
2. Our father, Jacob, was also given the name, "Israel." When Israel blessed his twelve sons who founded the Twelve Tribes of Israel, he mentioned that certain tribes would utilize the characteristics of animals in their service to the Compassionate One. For example, Judah is compared to a lion (Genesis 49:9), Issachar to a strong donkey (49:14), Dan to a serpent (49:17), Naftali to a deer (49:21), and Benjamin to a wolf (49:27).
Neither the wolf or the serpent would win a popularity contest in most human circles, but these animals have qualities which we can emulate in certain dangerous situations. For example, the serpent has cunning, and as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains, cunning can be the strength of the weak when they are threatened by powerful enemies.
3. When Moses blessed the tribes before they entered the Promised Land, he compares the two tribes which emerge from Joseph to an ox (Deuteronomy 33:17).