Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are sacred days of spiritual renewal when we rededicate every aspect of our being to serving the life-affirming and elevating purpose of our Creator. It is therefore appropriate to review some teachings which remind us that other creatures can be our helpers in this process of renewal:
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). - 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 specific 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 or defending a truth 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. For example, when we lived in societies where people tried to persuade us or force us to worship a human being whom they deified, we boldly proclaimed that we only worship the Compassionate One - the Source of all life. We especially need this boldness in our modern secular society where many people proclaim that the entire humankind is god and that this god is the owner and sovereign of the earth and its creatures. In such a society, we need to have the boldness of the leopard and proclaim, "To the Compassionate One belongs the earth and its fullness, the inhabited land and those who dwell in it" (Psalm 24:1).
"Light as an eagle" – Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, who recently passed away in Jerusalem, elaborates on this idea. Rabbi Wolbe 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, says Rabbi Wolbe, 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)."
Just as we are to learn from other human beings without deifying them, so too, we are to learn from other creatures without deifying them. In fact, the wisdom which we perceive within all creatures is to lead us to a deeper awareness of the One Creator of all life. In this spirit, it is written within our Sacred Scriptures:
"Please ask, however, the animal, and it will teach you; the bird of the heavens, and it will tell you, or speak to the earth, and it will teach you; the fish of the sea will report to you. Who cannot know from all these things that the hand of God made this? That in His hand is the soul of every living thing and the spirit of all humankind?" (Job 12:7-10)
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
P.S. Most of the above teachings are found in the Hazon letter "Creatures as Teachers" which appears in the archive (lower section) on our website. For further study on this theme, review the following articles in the archive:
1. The Torah of the Creatures
2. A Divine Gift to the Wise: The Art of Learning from Other Creatures