Shavuot: A Four Step Program

In preparation for Shavuot, we present Judaism’s four step program. Everything that G-d created can be used for constructive or destructive purpose. It can be unifying or divisive.

Take walls for example. Are walls good or bad? Ronald Regan famously challenged Mr. Gorbachev to take down a wall; the Berlin Wall. Today, Donald Trump was voted in as president with a promise to build a wall. Walls can be good or bad, depending on their context. It is good to build a wall between yourself and your enemy. It is terrible to build a wall between yourself and your brother.

Similarly, human traits can be used for good or bad. The four step program teaches us to channel four human traits, brazenness, ambition, decisiveness and endurance to good purpose.

Yehudah 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…”

Brazen Like A Leopard
Let’s look at brazenness. First, we are encouraged to be brazen like a lion, then we are told 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 did last night, 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.

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 greed, fame or jealousy, it is bad. Imagine you feel satisfied with the Judaism of your past; you were raised going to synagogue on Shabbat and not eating pork, you observe the High holidays, Chanukah and Passover, and you feel that is sufficient. Do you need more?

The four step program prompts you to channel your natural ambition to soar like an eagle. 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. It set’s its wings to flying and it soars. We can do the same, despite being unaccustomed to certain kosher observances, we can set out mind to them and soar.

Another aspect of the eagle is its light weight. When you are brazen, you think highly of yourself and that can cause you to take yourself too seriously. Let others deal with the rituals and traditions that I consider unimportant. 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 perform for G-d however you are called upon.

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 his pursuer is following. This means that 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 it. If we are tempted to a particular non kosher establishment, 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.

When one rushes headlong from one mitzvah to the next, fleeing every stumbling-block and tripping-stone, it 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 on our studies.

The four step program prompts us to toggle back and forth between swift decisiveness and plodding deliberation 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 to bring us one 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.

Yehudah – Subservient
The four step program summons us to 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 mitzvah, but focused and strong to study Torah. How can we embody such conflicting streams?

The answer lies in the name of the sage who developed the four step program. Yehudah, means to acknowledge. It also contains G-d’s name, the tetragrammaton. We, at best, acknowledge G-d’s truth because G-d transcends comprehension. Rendered thusly, Yehudah 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 up whatever we need, whether it is our feature strength or not.

Yehudah’s father was Teima. The four Hebrew letters that comprise Teima are Taf, 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 menial mitzvot, comes from fear of G-d. Swiftness and inner strength lead respectively to Mitzvah and Torah.

Yehudah the son of Teima taught us the four step program because when your focus is Yehudah, complete attachment to G-d, you can be successful in all four drives that form the letters of Teima.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at www.innerstream.org
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