The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (Chapter 5) states: “Yehuda ben Tema says: Be bold like a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and mighty as a lion to perform the will of your father in Heaven.” Let us now explain this Mishnah.
The Tanna writes that one must be as “bold as a leopard” meaning that there are times when one will abstain from performing a Mitzvah because others ridicule him. The Mishnah therefore commands not to abstain from performing the Mitzvot under any circumstances; rather, one must be bold in the face of those who ridicule him and perform the Mitzvot.
This is especially relevant regarding things which society is not accustomed to. For instance, if a woman has friends who do not cover their hair, it will be very difficult for her to cover her hair, for she will be afraid to lose her friends. Similarly, if one wishes not to lose out on his daily Torah class and therefore decides not to answer his phone during the class, he will be afraid that his friends will ridicule him that he “has become a righteous fellow.” Another example of this is when one wishes to take care not to speak during prayer services and his friend sitting right next to him asks him a question; one will certainly be ashamed not to answer. In all these and similar situations, one must be bold and unswerving to keep the commandments of Hashem as one wishes to. Hashem will help to make one more admired by his peers for his commitment to Torah and Mitzvot.
Nevertheless, one must take great care not to fight with others, for ultimately, boldness and audacity are bad traits, so much so that some say they should not even be used for the service of Hashem. One should therefore make sure to secure himself friends and acquaintances of high spiritual caliber who are Torah and Mitzvah observant themselves in order to ease one’s commitment to Torah and Mitzvot.
The reason why the Mishnah states specifically “light like an eagle” as opposed to any other bird is because the eagle has extraordinary sight even in great distances, for although it flies at great altitude, it can discern any carcass on the ground. Our Sages therefore warn us to be cautious regarding what our eyes see, for sight is the first stage of sinning since the eyes see, the heart desires, and the other limbs achieve the sin. Rather, one must be as “light as an eagle” and quickly ignore what one has seen and what one’s heart desires.
When the Mishnah states that one must be “swift like a deer,” this refers to the fact that one’s legs should always run to good things, as King David states (Tehillim 119), “Guide me in the path of your commandments.” One should not become lethargic while on his way to perform a Mitzvah.
When the Mishnah states that one must be as “mighty as a lion,” this teaches us that one must be as mighty as a lion regarding performance of the Mitzvot and one must overcome his evil inclination and abstain from performing prohibitions, for both performing Mitzvot and abstaining from sinning require tremendous might. Based on this, Maran begins the first chapter of his Shulchan Aruch as follows:
“One must infuse himself with might like a lion to awaken in the morning to the service of his Creator and one should awaken even before dawn.”
The Poskim explain that if one cannot wake up so early in the morning, especially nowadays when we have electricity and therefore do not go to sleep as early or if one is worried that waking up so early will disturb his Torah study and service of Hashem, according to the letter of the law, one may wake up later. One must nevertheless take care not to miss the latest times for reciting Keri’at Shema and prayer, for one is obligated to abide by these times. One must always think to himself how careful one would be to arise early if he was commanded to so in order to serve a king of flesh and blood; how much more so must take care regarding the service of the King of all Kings, Hashem, blessed is He.