Shiur #05: Chapter Five

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers

Shiur #05: Chapter Five

The twentieth mishna of the fifth perek cites the well known adage of Ben Teima: "Be brazen as a leopard, light as an eagle, quick as a gazelle and strong as a lion in performing the will of your Father in heaven." Interestingly enough, throughout shas, we find this aphorism applied to just one practical situation. The gemara in Pesachim (112a) cites the position of Rabbi Akiva discouraging financial dependence upon others: "Do not rely upon the charity of others, even at the cost of diminishing Shabbat enjoyment." Subsequently, the gemara recoils slightly from Rabbi Akiva's "extreme" scenario of completely emptying Shabbat of luxury; instead it encourages even the impoverished person to take some effort at enhancing Shabbat (even by preparing a relatively inexpensive drink). To reinforce this recommendation, the gemara cites Ben Teima's statement urging sacrifice on behalf of mitzva fulfillment. In this instance, despite the sacrifice (indulging in Shabbat despite the shortage of funds), intense efforts should still be invested to enhance Shabbat. Interestingly, the Rashbam, in his comments to Pesachim, highlights the leopard as a specific model for Shabbat preparation for indigent people. An impoverished person is expected to perform mitzvot and conduct Shabbat celebration beyond his natural means, 'similar to a leopard.' It is not entirely clear from the Rashbam's remarks how a leopard exemplifies this type of sacrifice or tenacity, but it is clear according to the Rashbam, that the gemara cited Ben Teima's comprehensive list merely to highlight the leopard. In his own comments to Avot, Rashi asserts that a person should galvanize himself to prepare for Shabbat - in the manner of a leopard and an eagle. He thus agrees with the Rashbam that the entire list is not necessarily germane to Shabbat preparation.

Of course, this maxim became renowned when the Tur began his comments to Orach Chayim with this list. After citing this adage, the Tur explains "there are four aspects crucial to Avodat Hashem," underscoring the fact that although they might seem similar, these qualities are indeed four distinct characteristics (see Beit Yosef). A cursory glance, however, seems to produce only three traits - with one of them seemingly repeated for effect: boldness (leopard), speed and alacrity (eagle AND gazelle) and strength (lion). Assuming that Ben Teima truly intended four distinct traits, we must distinguish between the 'lightness' of an eagle and the 'speed' of a gazelle. By comparison, in his own seminal list of religious traits, Rav Pinchas Ben Yair (in the final mishna in Sota; his list served as the basis for the structure of Mesilat Yesharim) lists the trait of 'zerizut' – the promptness and enthusiasm with which a person fulfills a mitzva. Rav Pinchas did not distinguish between different forms of zerizut or enthusiasm. By contrast, Ben Teima 'split' this single feature into two elements.

The Tur himself responds to this issue when he transforms the 'lightness' of an eagle into the ability to avert one's eyes from objects which may elicit desire. Pressured to distinguish the 'lightness' of an eagle from the 'speed' of a gazelle, the Tur converted the former into something completely unrelated to speed. Just as an eagle soars, so may a person's vision or imagination, and Ben Teima is encouraging the grounding of that unbounded curiosity. The danger of unbridled curiosity is indeed well documented, but this interpretation seems to deviate from the literal reading. Several other Rishonim offered different strategies for distinguishing between an eagle and a gazelle.

Perhaps in response to this question, Rashi, in his comments to the mishna in Avot, defines the 'lightness' of an eagle as the absence of laziness. He may have sought thereby to determine the distinction between 'lightness' and 'speed': the speed of a gazelle speaks to a person's overall intent - to embrace mitzvot rather than avoiding them - symbolized by the image of running toward something. The lightness of an eagle, by contrast, demands the performance of mitzvot without procrastination. According to Rashi the gazelle encourages a general enthusiastic embrace of halakha whereas the eagle speaks to the mechanics of mitzva performance; One is existential and one is practical.

In a similar vein, the Maharal discriminates between initiating a deed and executing it. People typically suffer a general inability to begin projects. To many, this condition is most familiar in the form of writer's block. Once the action is taken, very often, our efforts 'flow' and we are drawn by the process itself. Goethe (18th-century German poet) once wrote, "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did." An eagle is defined by its lightness of bone and flesh which grants it aerodynamic capability. 'Lightness,' then, is taken in both an actual and figurative sense: do not be burdened by the natural disinclination to launch projects/mitzvot. Instead, be buoyant as an eagle, which does not encounter those natural obstacles. Once an action has been initiated, Ben Teima expects the alacrity of a gazelle in performing and completing the objective. In this respect, the speed of a gazelle is comparable to the conventional trait of zerizut which Rav Pinchas ben Yair listed.

Inability to adequately distinguish between these two traits perhaps encouraged the Meiri to apply them to two unrelated realms of human activity. The 'lightness' of an eagle should drive a person's learning, while the speed of a gazelle should inform his physical experiences. The Meiri does not divulge how the eagle relates to more spiritual pursuits while the speed of a gazelle to more mundane ones. It is also interesting that the Meiri extended Ben Teima's statements into the realm of personal/physical experience, even though the statement itself appears to apply to the more narrow pursuits of mitzvot proper (as the adage concludes, "to perform the will of your Father in Heaven").

Along generally similar lines, the Vilna Gaon claimed that the 'lightness' of an eagle refers to tefilla, the boldness of a leopard to Torah study, the strength of a lion to avoidance of sin, and the speed of a gazelle to the performance of mitzvot. As is so typical of the Gaon, this system of four compartments of avodat Hashem is based upon a verse in Mishlei which introduces imagery that helps elucidate Ben Teima's list. Instead of viewing these traits as sweeping features which must animate and assist the totality of religious experience, both the Meiri and the Gaon chose to compartmentalize them.

The Tur's inclusion of this list as a preface to his "Orach Chaim" was cited earlier, Rav Yosef Karo in his introduction to Shulchan Arukh, did not cite the entire list. Instead, he mentions only the strength of a lion in orienting a person awakening toward religious calling. Commenting on this glaring omission, the Taz claimed that the strength of a lion in combating the yetzer ha-ra is the most decisive trait; Rav Yosef Karo therefore deleted the other three, in order to spotlight this particular trait of spiritual strength. Perhaps a more literal reading of the Shulchan Aruch yields a different view. The first siman in Orach Chayim promotes a swift and early rising in the morning. The gemara in Berakhot tells that David Ha-melekh would arise at midnight to assure proper time for Torah study before his schedule precluded it. The Rambam's position about the value of praying at sunrise (which we refer to as Vatikin - the practice of a limited minority, but which the Rambam felt was a basic universal obligation) also comes to mind. Throughout Tanakh, and in Sefer Bereishit in particular, the heroes are arising early in the morning to attend to their mission. Recognizing the innate difficulty in this challenge, Rav Yosef Karo enlisted the strength of a lion as an example of the type of tenacity which this challenge demands. The first 'sei'f' of the Shulchan Arukh concludes, "A person should 'awaken the morning' (meaning, rise before sunrise)," and the succeeding 'se'if' reinforces this image: "If a person arises to pray BEFORE sunrise he should coordinate his prayer with the changing evening shifts (known as mishmarot and discussed in the very beginning of Berakhot)." Rav Yosef Karo thus clearly focuses upon the manner of awakening and utilized the image of a lion's strength to capture the energy he demands.

As a postscript to this discussion, it is intriguing to compare the Shulchan Arukh's introductory remarks with those of the Rema. In 'response' to Rav Yosef Karo's partial citation of Ben Teima (and perhaps in response to the Tur's complete citation), the Rema cites a different passage - the pasuk of "Shiviti Hashem le-negdi tamid" ("I place Hashem before me always" – Tehillim 16:8), and elaborates upon the awareness of Hashem's presence - a consciousness which should permeate our daily behavior. He even uncharacteristically cites a section of the Moreh Nevuchim, which amplifies this pasuk with a parable. I believe that this pasuk accomplishes three aspects which Ben Teima's aphorism does not:

1) It personalizes the relationship between man and God. Ben Teima's statements may be described as 'task-oriented' in that they provide guidance for performing mitzvot. The Rema's statement centralizes the PERSONAL dialogue between the human being and his Creator.

2) As Ben Teima's statement is 'task-oriented,' it is not wholistic. It applies to major moments of human experience, and even - one could claim – the most dominant moments: the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvot. By contrast, the Rema's statement provides a sweeping, integrative message which should inform the totality of human experience.

3) In addition, the Rema's statement seems less concrete but more human. Ben Teima proposed four animals to serve as models for religious excellence. Though these animals provide tangible and physical templates, clearly something will be lost in translation. A person will not actually behave as a lion or leopard, but merely approximate these traits into the human condition. The Rema proposes a more abstract principle, but one which requires little translation: the goal to retain uninterrupted acknowledgement of Hashem's presence. This final contrast highlights an interesting moral and educational question. Do we educate in concrete terms, or in terms which will allow maximum internalization to the human experience? Each provides certain advantages and exposes certain risks.

On a personal note, I reflected upon this final question a while back one Shabbat when my family hosted several guests at our table. As a few prepared to leave, others arose to escort them out the door, because this escort would generate 'favorable angels.' I personally did not rise for that reason, but escorted my guests out of personal courtesy and basic interpersonal duties. Clearly, my ethics in this regard are (I believe) more anchored to my personality than angels may be. However, for some, and certainly at certain stages of life, the knowledge that 'concrete' angels will be created is a more compelling notion. I believe that this very issue yields the different approaches taken in the opening statements of the Shulchan Arukh and the corresponding remarks of the Rema. Ben Teima's list is more concrete but less 'existential' whereas the Rema's statement is more 'human' but also more abstract.

As yet a second postscript, I would like to recount a story about Yeshivat Har Etzion. Over thirty years ago, when the parochet (curtain) for the yeshiva's aron kodesh was being manufactured, the question arose as to which pasuk should be sewn onto the curtain. Someone had suggested the pasuk, 'Ma ahavti Toratekha kol ha-yom hi sichati' ('How I love Your Torah – I speak of it all day' – Tehillim 119:97). Rav Amital, however, vetoed this pasuk because it seemed too ambitious, and even elitist. Instead, he recommended the pasuk, 'Shiviti Hashem," which, as the Rema himself expressed, encourages us to maintain the sense of Hashem's presence in all our pursuits.