Birchos HaShachar: Who Gave the Heart Understanding
אשר נתן לשכוי בינה להבחין בין יום ובין לילה …Who gave the heart understanding to distinguish between day and night
The word “שכוי–sechvi” in this brachah has two meanings: rooster and “leiv” (which can mean heart or mind). We begin the series of brachos called “Birchos HaShachar” with thanking Hashem for giving the rooster the ability to discern between night and day just as one transitions to the other. And in doing so, we also thank Hashem for our cognitive ability to discern between day and night.
Our seichel is one of the primary distinctions between man and other creations. It is our seichel that allows us to grow in Torah and yir’as Hashem and to fulfill our unique role in the world.
There are so many gifts that Hashem gives to us constantly that most of us take for granted. These gifts are often the greatest gifts that we enjoy literally every moment of our lives – for example, air! Most of us do not think about breathing. We just breathe subconsciously and are not even aware. Do we ever thank Hashem just for being able to breathe? But Chazal do tell us that we must praise Hashem for each breath (B’reishis Rabah 14:9).
Similarly, our cognitive ability is another prime example of the greatest of gifts that we enjoy every moment but that many of us don’t even think about. Unfortunately, those who have family members or other loved ones who suffer from dementia become more aware of one of the greatest of all the gifts we enjoy. We must appreciate and treasure our ability to think, to learn Torah, to choose (b’chirah), to discern, to remember, to love, to relate, to understand, and so much more.
This brachah is the first brachah for a few reasons. The most obvious is that it speaks about daybreak, discerning between the beginning of the day and the night before. Daybreak brings with it a wonderful feeling of optimism, as we anticipate a new day of coming closer to Hashem and to each other.
We can also add another reason. We need our cognitive abilities for literally every aspect of living a physical and spiritual life. The very first gift we must profusely thank Hashem for is the gift of seichel.
This also explains why “דעת–daas” is our very first request in the request section of our Shemoneh Esrei. The Mishnah B’rurah (siman 115) quotes from the sefer Seder HaYom that this request is placed first because it is the primary request that man needs to ask of Hashem. Many people have the desire to do Hashem’s will, but when presented with two alternatives, they may not understand which of the two is consistent with Hashem’s will. We need daas in order to know what Hashem’s will is and to discern – before any given action, speech, or thought – whether what we are about to engage in is in accordance with Hashem’s will or not.
On a deeper level in our brachah, “day” represents all that is bright and good, while “night” represents all that is dark and bad. Hashem grants to us the ability to discern and choose between good and evil, between truth and falsehood, and between coming closer to Hashem and distancing ourselves from Him.
Think about a person who now has or who has had dementia. Contemplate what his life was like when he enjoyed his cognitive abilities. Now contemplate what his life became when he lost those abilities. Nothing more need be said. Let us say this brachah with great thanks and joy for what we enjoy now, and perhaps with a tefilah in mind that we be granted our seichel until our last breath of a long productive life, b’ezras Hashem.