I am a high school teacher. One challenge I face in my working with teenagers is the difficulty that many of them have waking up in the morning and getting started with their day: tefilla, their studies, and so forth. It is something that is not unique to teenagers. Many people struggle to wake up in the morning, to start their days with feelings of energy and excitement. Our halahkic sources guide us in this regard: we should strive as an ideal to wake up in the morning with great energy, with great passion, with great excitement to serve God. This is the first line of the Shulchan Aruch, which says
“יתגבר כארי לעמוד בבוקר לעבודת בוראו”
“A person should wake up in the morning like a lion in order to serve their Creator”
And it is a beautiful ideal. It is something that we should strive for and a goal that we should set our sights on. However, here is the problem: If you have observed a lion at the zoo, you have seen that lions behave like big cats. They wake up. They yawn. They are lazy. They roll over. They go back to sleep in the sun. What can the Shulchan Aruch possibly be telling me? What does it mean to wake up like a lion? Lions do not wake up early in the morning. Lions do not wake up ready to go.
If we look at the comments of the Seforno in this week’s parsha, we get a deeper insight into what it means to wake up like a lion to serve God. In Bresishit 49:9, Yaacov gives his son Yehuda a berakha:
“כָּרַע רָבַץ כְּאַרְיֵה וּכְלָבִיא מִי יְקִימֶנּוּ”
“He bows down and couches like a lion, and like a lion’s whelp who can raise him up?”
The Seforno there points out: what does it mean that like a lion, no one can get him up? That is because no one has the power or the authority to wake up the lion, the king of the beasts. The lion chooses when to wake up. If anything, it is the lion’s slow morning, its lazy cat-like yawn, that actually is an indication of the lion’s greatness. The lion is the king of the beasts. The lion is the master of his or her own future. Maybe the Shulchan Aruch is not suggesting that you have to wake up super early in the morning in order to serve God. Rather, that every choice you make to serve God, every action you take throughout your day, for tefillah, for tzedaka, for Talmud Torah: they should be based and grounded in your own freedom to choose, your own will, command of your own time, and your own destiny.
You are the lion, the king or the queen of the beasts for your own life. That is what the Seforno points out in the berakha Yaacov gives to Yehuda. Yehuda, who has the future to be the king of Israel, represents that sense of monarchy, of independence, of self control and will, that we should all dedicate in each of our own lives to the service of God, to serving others, and to spreading the values of Torah to the whole world.