I woke up this morning to the sound of a rooster – two actually – perched atop the Beth El Mitzvah Garden. Minutes before my alarm normally awakens me to “Traffic on the Eights,” this little guy gave me his “Kukuricu” on the twos. With Tu B’Shevat a few days away, I thought of the old pioneer song, Koom Bachur Atzel – “Get up, lazy boy, get up and go out to work; Cock-a-doodle-doo a rooster called out.”
Before popping into Morning Minyan, I recorded their prayer..
For the very first prayer of the morning service mentions the rooster, praising God for granting the rooster the instinctual knowledge to distinguish day from night. The Talmud (Brachot 60) states that when one hears the rooster crow, s/he should say “ha-notayn l’sechvi bina.” In fact we’re supposed to say it even if we don’t hear that crow. This is the first time I’ve ever walked into services and said that prayer, having just heard the rooster say it himself.
Sadly, many prayer books have removed the word “rooster” from the translation, an indication of how removed we’ve become from the original texture of our prayers – and from the intimate connection our pre-industrial ancestors had to the natural world around them. Tu B’shevat reminds us of the need to reverse that trend.
So why, of all creatures, is the rooster so significant in Jewish liturgy and Hebrew folklore? The rabbis were taking their cues from Job 38:36, an amazing, vivid chapter, where God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind and asks “Who put wisdom in remote places, or who gave understanding to a rooster?”
Roosters have come to symbolize many things for different cultures, ranging from courage in Japan (also true for Jews, who link a name for rooster, gever, to gevurah, heroism) to fidelity in China, to good luck in Portugal and in France, it symbolizes, well, France.
Some Jews twirl them before Yom Kippur (though many authorities discourage this inhumane act), the roosters red color reminiscent of the red cord tied to the scape goat bearing the people’s sins. For Marc Chagall, roosters seem to symbolize masculine fertility, the artist’s fiery spirit and the vivid memories of his shtetl upbringing in Vitebsk. Roosters and Jews share a lot, it seems, including dizzying destinies and blood-red memories of a simpler world that is no more.
What else might roosters symbolize?
Maybe this story from Nachman of Bratslav can give us a hint:
Once upon a time there was a little boy who became convinced that he was a rooster. He removed his clothes, huddled under the table, refused to eat anything but rooster food, and communicated by clucking. His parents were beside themselves. They called doctors, teachers, friends, and family, but nobody could convince the boy to abandon his rooster-like ways. Finally, wringing their hands, they called the Rebbe. The Rebbe assessed the situation, and declared that he could cure the boy, though his method may be unorthodox. The parents quickly assented. The Rebbe proceeded to take off his clothes, huddle under the table, eat rooster food, and cluck. After some time, the Rebbe said to the boy: “I’m cold. What if we put on some human clothes?” The boy responded, “But we’re roosters!” The Rebbe replied, “We can be roosters who wear human clothes!” The boy considered this for a moment, and concluded, “Fine. That sounds reasonable.” They put on clothes. More time passed. The Rebbe said to the boy, “I don’t like this food. What if we ate some human food?” The boy responded, “But we’re roosters!” The Rebbe replied, “We can be roosters who eat human food.” The boy decided, “Fine. That is reasonable.” And so it went with the huddling under the table, and so, at last, it went with the clucking. The boy was cured.
Much like the shofar, the rooster’s crow awakens us, but unlike the shofar, the primal sound comes not from human effort, but from a more mysterious and ancient source, one that connects us deeply to nature at our most vulnerable moment, the moment of arousal from sleep. it forces us to deal with nature on its own terms, not on ours. We can’t manipulate that call. We can’t distort it. We are too vulnerable at that moment to do anything planned or remotely conscious. We can only respond to it. It is impossible to manipulate this call, to mold it to our ends.
Nachman’s story tells us that we should respond to other human beings in the same way – on their own terms, not by imposing our standards on them, but by getting down (or up) to their level and accepting them as they are. By connecting. By loving unconditionally. By trusting.
That is why the rooster possesses a truer, deeper wisdom than we have, the wisdom not of the brain but of the heart (and indeed some translate the word “sechvi” as heart, rather than rooster).
That is also the wisdom that is embedded in Jewish prayer. It takes a common cliche, “as different as night and day,” filters it through the prism of nature and instinct, and transforms it into a moral calling. We need to be able to distinguish between goodness and evil as instinctually as the rooster determines night from day. The rooster knows that distinction so well that he can welcome the day well before the sun rises. We need to have a similar radar that can enable us to respond to the call of Psalm 34, “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it,” even before our eyes have fully opened.
Meanwhile, how many of you city slickers have ever awakened in your own beds to the sound of the rooster? It’s way cooler than “Traffic on the Eights.”