The leopard isn’t the largest of the big cats. It’s not feared as a king of beasts. It’s not the fastest, like the cheetah. Rather, the leopard is persistent. A solitary hunter, its sharp vision enables it to see what others can’t. It dwells alone, stalking its prey in the darkness, able to kill animals much larger than itself. It often hauls its prey up a tree, to protect it from jackals and other scavengers.
The leopard is a resilient, adaptable hunter. This is reflected by the huge area through which it is dispersed. The people who share its territory know and respect its intelligence and strength.
Our Sages of blessed memory describe the leopard as “az.” In Mishna 5:23 of Avot, Yehuda Ben Taima advises us to be “az kenamayr, 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” (ArtScroll translation).
Elsewhere, “az,” or rather its derivative, “oz,” is translated as “might.” In Psalm 29 we are told “Hashem oz le-amo yitain” – “Hashem will give might to His people; Hashem will bless His people with peace” (ArtScroll translation).
What is az-oz? What leopard-like quality are we supposed to have, according to Yehuda Ben Taima? In another Mishna (5:24) he says the “az-panim,” the az-faced people, are destined for gehennim. In the Yehi Ratzon, recited after morning brachas, “az” is translated as “brazen” and we ask to be protected from such people.
We’re supposed to be “az,” but if we understand and do it wrongly, we’ve got a problem.
Let’s look back to the leopard for help.
King Nimrod was a great-grandson of Noah. He was the first person to start a war, the first described by the Torah as “mighty.” He subdued a leopard, which then accompanied him on his hunts. According to some, the word “Nimrod” is Babylonian for “leopard-tamer.” The leopard is thus the animal of the primordial man of war. It’s no coincidence that an important military tank was named for it.
The namayr is also seen as part of the oppression of the Jewish people. Rashi says the leopard, the third creature in Daniel’s vision (7:6), represents the evil kingdom of Antiochus, whose decrees were “spotted.”
The most famous leopard in Tanach is in the messianic vision of Isaiah 11:6, where the predator lies down with a young goat. A popular story tells of the zookeeper who wanted to display this scene for his guests. A visitor, amazed at seeing the predator and prey peacefully together, asked the zookeeper how he did it. “As long as I get a supply of kid goats, we’re fine.”
R. Gershon Winkler, author of Soul Of The Matter, says the leopard symbolizes stalking and patience, leading to sudden transformation. Its power is in its sudden appearance, its element of surprise, symbolic of redemption.
Putting all of these together, we have solitude, persistence, dispersion, resilience, patience, strength, intelligence, boldness, war, oppression, spottiness, surprise, redemption. We have the story of the Jewish People.
We are widely dispersed, we’re intelligent and strong. We persist despite the world’s attempts to be rid of us. When we create a life for ourselves, we have to metaphorically climb a tree to keep scavengers from taking what we have gained through our “az.” Certainly our accomplishments are disproportionate to our small numbers. Our “az” has also been brazen, leading toward darkness. Jewish intellectuals are in the forefront of a wide array of anti-Torah movements.
A simple example of the dual nature of “az” is the story of the greenhouses of Gaza, a brilliant agricultural triumph. The Jews who moved to a bleak desert had “az” to do the will of Hashem. Through persistence and intelligence, they created a resource the whole world could admire and benefit from.
What was the “az” of the Israeli government that expelled Jews from Gush Katif? Was it a bold or brazen act that ripped the greenhouses out of the hands of their creators, handing them to destructive scavengers? Perhaps we can say that the decrees of the Israeli government were “spotted.” With hindsight, we see that the expulsion brought Israel no friends, no respect, no tactical advantage.