Everything that G‑d created can be used for constructive or destructive purpose. Everything can be unifying or divisive. Human traits, too, can be used for good or bad. The four-step program presented here in preparation for Shavuot teaches us to channel four human traits—brazenness, ambition, decisiveness and endurance—to good purpose.
“Judah the son of Teima would say: ‘Be brazen as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer and mighty as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.’ He would also say: ‘The brazen, to purgatory…’”1
Brazen Like A Leopard
Let’s look at brazenness. First, Judah the son of Teima encourages us to be brazen like a lion, then he says that the brazen are destined for purgatory. Is brazenness good or bad? The answer is that it is neither good nor bad, it depends on how it is used. If it is used for G‑d, it is good. If it is used against G‑d, it is bad.
When we feel inadequate, it requires a measure of boldness to stand up and serve G‑d. Imagine thinking, I’d love to pray, but knowing where I was and what I’ve done, will G‑d listen to me? To make matters worse, your friends mock your piety saying, “You think anybody up there is interested in what you have to say?” You don’t know if they are right or wrong, but you pray anyway. That is brazen.2
Light as an Eagle
Is ambition good or bad? It depends on your ambition. If it is to soar spiritually, it is good. If it is to pursue money, fame or status, it is bad. Imagine you feel satisfied with the Judaism of your past: maybe going to synagogue on Shabbat and not eating pork, or observing the High holidays, Chanukah and Passover. Perhaps you feel that what you are used to is sufficient.
The four-step program prompts you to channel your natural spiritual ambition to soar. To be kosher, a bird must have three out of the four kosher signs. Many birds have at least one of them. The eagle has none of them. Yet, this doesn’t stop it from soaring above all the other birds. The eagle’s ambition is light and unburdened. Similarly, we don’t have to let our past limitations define us. Like the eagle, we can soar.
Another characteristic of the eagle is its light weight. Being brazen is about taking yourself seriously, maybe too seriously. Let others deal with the rituals and traditions that I consider unimportant, you might say. I will focus only on the grave ones. The four-step program reminds us to temper our brazenness with the eagle’s lightness. Be willing and able to act for G‑d however you are called to do so.
Swift as a Deer
Is it good to be decisive? Depends on the situation. If the decision calls for deliberation, decisiveness is unhelpful. If the situation calls for swiftness, decisiveness is a good quality. When we come across an alluring temptation that we simply cannot dismiss, we need to be swift and decisive like a deer.
A deer runs quickly. We emulate it by seeking every mitzvah opportunity and never giving temptations a chance to catch up with us. We don’t give ourselves a chance to stop and think, moving swiftly and decisively from one mitzvah to the next.
But the deer also looks back to check if its pursuer is following. Despite our headlong rush from mitzvah to mitzvah, we don’t lose sight of our position. We keep an eye out for where temptations lurk and do our best to avoid them. If we are tempted to a particular non-kosher establishment, for example, we make a point of avoiding that neighborhood, even as we rush headlong into the next mitzvah.
Mighty as a Lion
This refers to resolute and unbending commitment in the face of pressure. Is such strength good? Again, it depends on the situation. If it calls for regrouping and planning a new approach, stubborn commitment is a hindrance. If it calls for endurance, inner strength is a plus.
Rushing headlong from one mitzvah to the next, fleeing every stumbling-block can trigger a frivolous attitude when mindfulness is required. For mitzvah observance, swiftness and alacrity is a strength, but for Torah study, focus and endurance are required. If our minds are in turmoil, it is difficult to focus.
The four-step program prompts us to toggle back and forth between swift decisiveness and plodding deliberation,3 and for that one needs an iron will—the might of a lion. When we give free reign to our creativity and enthusiasm, we trigger unbridled passion for another mitzvah and another mitzvah, each one bringing us a step closer to G‑d. However, when it is time to sit down and study Torah, we must channel our inner lion’s strength to bear down on our studies and bring the Torah into sharp focus.
Judah – Subservient
The four-step program asks us to embody conflicting traits. Be brazen to resist mockery and lowliness, but light and humble to motivate yourself in the long run. Be swift and decisive to avoid temptation and pursue mitzvahs, but focused and strong to study Torah. How can we embody such conflicting ways of being?
The answer lies in the name of the sage who developed the four-step program. The name Judah comes from the word l’hodot, “to acknowledge.” It also contains G‑d’s name, the Tetragrammaton. At our best, we acknowledge G‑d’s truth because G‑d transcends comprehension. “Judah” connotes humble submission to G‑d.
When we are motivated by an awareness of G‑d’s all-encompassing presence in our midst, we feel driven to draw closer to him. When our drive is focused exclusively on our goal, we pay scant attention to the particular tools, the specific means, that each situation calls for. We call upon whatever resources are needed, whether it is our feature strength or not.
Judah’s father was Teima. Teima comprises four Hebrew letters: tav, yud, mem and alef. They form an acronym for ahava (love), yirah (awe), mitzvah and Torah. The brazenness to approach G‑d comes from love of G‑d. The lightness to perform even the small mitzvahs, comes from fear of G‑d. Swiftness and inner strength lead respectively to mitzvah and Torah.
Judah the son of Teima taught us the four-step program because when your focus is Judah, complete attachment to G‑d, you can be successful in all four drives that form the letters of Teima.4 (Chabad.org)
1, Ethics of Our Fathers, 5:20.
2. Rabbi Ovadya Bartenura explained that the leopard under discussion is a hybrid, similar to a leopon (the offspring of a leopard and a lion). The message is that it is the right of every Jew, even a Jew of questionable lineage, to pray.
3. This is another reason the deer looks back: to make sure that it can put on the breaks when necessary and stop to study Torah. Another situation that calls for the strength of a lion is when temptation simmers and burns, like the temptation that Joseph experienced in Egypt, when he was propositioned daily by his master’s wife.
4. This essay is based on Reshimot #7 and Torat Moshe (Alshich on Leviticus 25:7).
By: Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, and a frequent contributor to The Judaism Website—Chabad.org. He has lectured extensively on a variety of Jewish topics, and his articles have appeared in many print and online publications. For more on Rabbi Gurkow and his writings, visit InnerStream.ca.