Baruch Atah Hashem, Elokeinu Melech ha’olam, Hanosein lasechvi vinah l’havchin bein yom u’vein leilah.

Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, Who gives the rooster the understanding to discern between day and night.

The first of the daily birchos hashachar thanks Hashem for the ability of the sechvi to distinguish between day and night. What is meant by this blessing? Specifically, if we understand sechvi to mean rooster, why does this bird’s timekeeping ability warrant a special brachah, one said every single day? What of city dwellers, who wake up to alarm clocks or the rumble of morning traffic or a baby’s cry? What of a person who has never, in his entire life, heard a rooster’s crow? How should we town mice relate to this brachah?

The Geonim explain that the rooster’s crow signified not just the dawn, but the beginning of the terumas hadeshen service in the Beis Hamikdash. Saying this brachah each day reminds us of the exalted avodah performed there daily, and connects our 21st-century tefillos to that timeless experience. As we begin our personal tefillah, our thoughts are subtly directed to the Beis Hamikdash, infusing our prayers with yearning for the return of this service, and the time when our avodah will take on an entirely different quality.

No-Brainer

The Alter of Slabodka questions why we focus on the innate quality of the rooster. After all, this creature may have a loud crow, but its brain is the size of — wait for it — a thimble! Would it not be more appropriate to thank Hashem for the wisdom He implanted in humankind — who can send people to the moon and split the atom?

The Alter of Slabodka’s answer is an opening into a transformative worldview. Human nature is to thank Hashem for major things that occur, and to be awed by these experiences. But the beauty of being Jewish is the ability to be a “Yehudi,” one with the capacity to acknowledge and thank — for the smallest and simplest of things. Indeed, the very first words out of our mouths in the morning are Modeh Ani — thanking Hashem for returning our souls to face a new day.

It’s fascinating to note that grammatically, we should first say the word ani, I. Instead, we begin with the word modeh, for “woe to the person whose first word in the morning is I.” A Jew’s responsibility and purpose in This World is to acknowledge Hashem in every facet of his life.

The Gemara demonstrates just how far this extends. It teaches us that not only do we thank Hashem for the rain that falls in Eretz Yisrael (something to think about when the roof leaks or a passing car splashes through a puddle and leaves us drenched). No, it’s not enough to thank for the rain in general; we must thank Hashem for each and every drop that falls. Every single drop is a blessing. Every single drop demands our thanks.

This, notes the Alter, is the message of the first blessing of the day. Life is about appreciating the small things in life — the crowing of the rooster. The things that we so often take for granted are the things that we need to appreciate.

This was also the message that Eliyahu Hanavi received on Har Sinai. Hashem showed him a vision of a great fire, wind, and earthquake. And yet, Hashem was not found in any of these visions. It was only in the “small, still voice” that Eliyahu felt Hashem’s Presence. Mishbetzos Zahav notes this voice is heard at the small moments in life, moments without fanfare, when we need to be cognizant of the Presence of Hashem — and thank Him accordingly.

Body Clocks and Time Zones

Another dimension that we can learn from the crowing of the rooster at day break is noted by Rav Aryeh Levin ztz”l. If one were to transplant a rooster from one time zone to another, the rooster would automatically adjust himself to the new time zone, and crow at dawn even in his new location.

The ability for a person to be able to know one’s place is of great value in Yiddishkeit. The start of a new day is the perfect time to reflect on where we are holding, set realistic goals, and figure out what can be accomplished in this given day. Just as a rooster is exquisitely tuned into its situation — wherever it may be — we need to have a similar awareness of our place and internal space.

High Alert

Using the principle that samech and sin can be interchanged, the Rosh understands sechvi as the aspect of “seeing” or “insight” (like the name “Yiska”), which connotes one who has Divine understanding of the heart (quoted in Rav Schwab’s sefer on tefillah). Accordingly, we thank Hashem every day for the ability to think and understand.

Rav Pincus ztz”l notes that Rashi translates “b’tzalmeinu kidmuseinu” as “binah v’haskel” (on Bereishis 1:26). Being created in the image of Hashem means that we’ve been given the gift of knowledge and understanding. It’s easy to take for granted that we can understand the world around us and be able to navigate through the challenges that confront us. First and foremost, we need to acknowledge this gift that Hashem has bestowed upon us: the gift of deep understanding. In beginning the morning blessings with this brachah, we allow ourselves to focus on this special gift, and not take it for granted.

Based on this interpretation, Rav Gamliel Rabinowitz offers a deeper insight into the conclusion of this brachah. Light and darkness are a metaphor for good and evil in This World. We live in a world of tremendous concealment and darkness. It’s a world that promotes lies as truth, and falsehood as an appropriate path. At the start of our day, this brachah is a call for each of us to remind ourselves of our purpose in This World. We need to constantly use our seichel to distinguish falsehood from truth.

Rav Pincus, developing this idea, notes that we need to be on high alert to discern what’s the path of Torah — and what Hashem expects of us at any given moment. We need to know the difference between this transient world, with its momentary pleasures, and the Next World whose pleasure knows no bounds. This brachah, then, becomes more than a morning thank-you. It becomes a mantra for our day; a compass in a world filled with confusion. It’s crucial that when our children ask us for the latest “fad,” we can distinguish between need and desire. We can shine a light into their lives of being able to use our seichel to evaluate and not just get swept along with peer pressure.

This idea of distinguishing and following the path of truth is applicable not only on an individual level, but on a national level, Rav Hirsch points out. This brachah reminds us that we’re in This World to serve as a “light unto the nations” and help them see truth from falsehood. In recognition of our spiritual leadership we then can say the next blessing, in which we thank Hashem for not making us a non-Jew.

Daily Cycles

The sefer Olas Tamid notes that it’s equally appropriate to thank Hashem at this point for the ability for each of us to have a timepiece to know the different hours of the day, and daven at the appropriate times. Do we realize how attached we are to knowing what time it is? How many times a day do we look at the clock?

Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein notes, based on the Shach, that during the flood, when it was impossible to know day from night, the rooster was the medium that made the differential for them. This brachah thanks Hashem for His beneficence, always giving us an opportunity to tap into the different cycles of any given day.

The greatest wisdom we can use in our lives is to appreciate the priceless nature of every single second — something to think about when we’re tempted to ignore the call of our alarm clocks and brush away the ripening gift of each new morning. (Originally featured in Family First, Issue 554)