Spiritual Insomnia

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The Jewish holidays are often associated, for many of us with family, particularly grandparents. As each holiday comes around, I can still hear my Bobe and Zada, Grandma and Grampa sharing their aphorisms and adages with me as if they were here. Each year at this time they would remind me, as I am sure your grandparents reminded you, that you must not sleep on Rosh Hashana day because you will then have a sleepy year.


While it may sound like a bubba ma’aseh, this practice actually has a source in our halacha. The Rama, Rav Moshe Isserles, in his gloss on Shulchan Aruch quotes the Yerushalmi that “nohagin she’lo lishon b’yom Rosh Hashana u’minhag nachon hu. We have the practice not to nap or sleep on Rosh Hashana day and this is a worthy custom.”


Indeed, it isn’t only on Rosh Hashana that we try to refrain from excessive sleep. The great men of the Mussar movement taught their disciples to limit sleep, as there would be plenty of time for rest in the grave. For most of his life, The Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, slept only two out of twenty four hours and even then only in four thirty-minute intervals. The Talmud records that this was also the sleep pattern of King David, whose magic harp awoke him at midnight to continue his efforts to serve Hashem and Israel. Scientists today recognize this as an alternative sleep method. It is called polyphasic sleep, also known as “Da Vinci sleep” or “Uberman sleep.”


In any case, chutzpadik child that I was, I would often turn to my Bobe and respond “and what would be so bad if I slept the whole year?” Perhaps a little older and I hope less chutzpadik, I still wonder, why is sleep fundamentally bad or negative that we discourage an excessive amount of it? Didn’t I earn my nap on Rosh Hashana afternoon by sitting in shul and davening all morning?


Just as in physical sleep we lack consciousness, awareness and alertness, and instead enter a shutdown mode, similarly one can be in a state of spiritual sleep, lacking spiritual consciousness and awareness in a state of spiritual shutdown. While physical sleep is necessary to rejuvenate the body, spiritual sleep poses a great risk to the soul, as it is deprived of the very thing that nourishes it, namely awareness.


The Rambam writes that the entire essence and goal of the shofar is to wake us from our spiritual sleep and lack of self-awareness. The shofar screams out at us, he says, “wake you sleepers from your slumber and begin to spiritually live.” Gratuitous sleep is viewed negatively on Rosh Hashana because it is a day to wake up, to rouse ourselves to a higher consciousness, not to seek to enjoy a few more minutes of unconsciousness.


Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.” For Thoreau, the essence of life is conscious endeavor, to be awake and alert.


The Shelah ha’kadosh gives the most amazing reason for the custom of Tashlich. He explains that we go to the water to see the fish. Why? Because fish never close their eyes; they don’t sleep. They are in a constant state of awareness and alertness. Rosh Hashana reminds us that, like fish, we need to remain spiritually awake.


Too many of us are simply sleepwalking through life. Rosh Hashana demands that we wake up, not get extra sleep. May we not only remain physically awake this Rosh Hashana, but more importantly may we experience a spiritual awakening and consciousness that lasts the whole year long.