The Talmud states: "When one hears the rooster crowing (at dawn), one should say, "Blessed is the One Who has given understanding to the rooster" (Brochos 60b). In this spirit, we chant the following blessing in the morning – the first in the special series of fifteen morning blessings:
"Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, Sovereign of the Universe, Who gave the rooster understanding to distinguish between day and night."
In his commentary on this blessing, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes: "We are bidden to consider the unique talent of the rooster, which the Creator has endowed with the ability to perceive the dawn of a new day, and to proclaim it with its very loud cry to the still-sleeping world. Thus God has equipped every one of His creatures with special gifts for specific purposes." (The Hirsch Siddur – A translation and commentary by Rabbi Hirsch on the Prayer Book, which is published By Feldheim www.feldheim.com )
The rooster has a place of honor in our tradition. Our Torah encourages us to cherish wisdom and understanding; thus, we even make a blessing of thanksgiving to the Creator for giving the rooster the understanding to distinguish between day and night. The Hebrew word for "rooster" in the above blessing is "sechvi" –a term which also refers to the human heart. Just as the rooster has the understanding to distinguish between the light of day and the darkness of the night, so too the human heart should develop the understanding to distinguish between ideas which bring light into the world, and ideas which bring darkness into the world. The rooster is therefore to serve as our rebbe, a teacher that reminds us to make distinctions between the light of the life-giving Divine teachings and the darkness of false instructions which lead to destruction and death.
The Rooster Rebbe, however, has many opponents in our modern age. They say to him, "What gives you the right to make such a distinction and decide for everyone what is light and what is darkness? Do you think you have the absolute truth? There are no absolute truths, for they are all relative; thus, each person is free to decide what is light and what is darkness." The opponents of the Rooster Rebbe have the view known as "moral relativism" – the belief that no opinion or value is ultimately better than another, since it's all "relative." It simply depends on your point of view. For example, one person may feel that "tzedakah" – helping those in need - is his truth, and another person may feel that being a miser is his truth. From the perspective of the moral relativist, who is to say which is better?
According to this philosophy, each person can be his own god and create his own truth. This philosophy speaks in the name of "tolerance," but by denying that there is a higher and universal truth, it increases the divisions within the world. For example, when some Jewish professors on college campuses tried to help their students understand the evil of the Holocaust, there were students who responded, "What gives you the right to label the Holocaust as 'evil'? That is only your point of view – your truth. The Germans of that period had another point of view – another truth. It is therefore wrong to make any distinction by saying one view is good or one is evil. It all depends on your point of view!" It is no wonder that some progressive activists have begun to join Torah-committed activists in challenging the philosophy of moral relativism which has become popular within some progressive and liberal circles. In this spirit, I would like to share with you a statement of protest from an article in the Forward, a progressive Jewish newspaper. It appeared on March 18th, 2005, and the author is Joshua Halberstam, a New York writer who taught philosophy at New York University and at Teacher's College, Columbia University. The title is, "Will the Left Finally Talk About What Matters?" The article discusses how many progressive activists have abandoned the concept of absolute ethical and moral values, and he writes:
Underlying this endemic inhibition to assert moral judgments is a pervasive, crude relativism. Perhaps nowhere is this stance more rooted than on the college campus, both among both professors and their students. Ethical relativists stipulate that no ethical position can be objectively true or false, for all values are simply reflections of one's culture (or, in some versions, one's personal taste). From the presumption, "It is true that everyone has an equal right to an opinion," they conclude blithely, "Therefore everyone's opinion is equally true." Such simplistic relativism is not only philosophically vacuous, but also socially pernicious. Not all points of view deserve respect. In fact, genuine moral equivalence is rarely the case — some claims are more legitimate than others.
The Torah opposes the concept of moral relativism. To understand this idea on a deeper level, we need to discuss a Divine mandate which was given in the Garden of Eden:
And the Compassionate and Just One commanded the human being, saying, 'Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you may not eat thereof; for on the day you eat it, you shall surely die." (Gen. 2:16,17)
A limitation is placed on the human being's ability to gratify his or her physical desires, and this limitation serves as a reminder of the following absolute truth: The human being is not the owner and sovereign of the Garden. When the human being was first created, he/she was given the understanding that the Creator was the owner and sovereign of the Garden, and that the human being was to be its caretaker (Genesis 2:15). The serpent in the story of the Garden, however, offers human beings a new way to view their role. In order to strengthen the temptation of the forbidden fruit, the serpent states: "You will surely not die; for God knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and bad" (Ibid. 3:4). Human beings are now tempted to become like God, and thereby decide for themselves what is "good and bad." In this particular story, the human being decides that what is "good" is what gratifies the desires of the body, and what is "bad" is what denies the human being the complete gratification of these desires; thus, the forbidden fruit was eaten (Genesis 3:6).
The first human couple lost the Garden when they became moral relativists. In order to find our way back to the Garden, we must learn from the example of the Rooster Rebbe, who has the God-given understanding to distinguish between light and darkness, and who has the courage to proclaim its message to the still-sleeping world. Our hearts must therefore develop the understanding to distinguish between light and darkness, good and evil. And we must develop the courage to proclaim this message to the still-sleeping world through the power of our own example. In this way, we will find our way back to the Garden, and we will merit the fulfillment of the following prophecy.
"For the Compassionate One will comfort Zion, He will comfort all her ruins; He will make her wilderness like Eden and her wasteland like the Garden of the Compassionate One; joy and gladness will be found there, thanksgiving and the sound of music." (Isaiah 51:3).
Have a Shabbat Shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen