Dream Not of Today

Yes, I know you’re exhausted. I also know about irresponsible roommates, colicky babies, infants with croup, calming kids with school anxiety, waiting up for teenagers at night, and sleeping with arthritis—and that’s only one thin slice of the gamut of life’s sleep disorders. What I’m trying to do here is present at least an ideal towards which, on those occasions that permit some degree of control, you can at least strive.

Study some Torah. Even if it’s late, just immerse yourself in some words of Torah, so that you will sleep with those thoughts. Maimonides writes that a person gains most of their wisdom from Torah studied at night. Fill your mind with it, so that it will process in your dreams. Often, solutions to Torah that you study at this time will come to you in your dreams.

A neat trick is to finish by marking the place from where you’ll start learning the next day. That primes your mind for productive learning in the morning.

Relax, maybe have a hot shower, or go for a walk so you will sleep well and wake up refreshed.

Review the day in your mind. Think of something that went well. Think of something that could be fixed or improved. Think of all the wonderful blessings you have in your life—friends, parents, children—all the things that have real value. Don’t beat yourself—this is not an exercise in self-blaming and guilt. The point is to get a clear perspective of yourself and your day, where you are coming from and where you are going to.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Nighttime Activities”
from the series A Multimedia Guide to Jewish Prayer
Chabad.org

This is a direct continuation of yesterday’s “morning meditation” An Introduction to a Prayer. I mentioned that Rabbi Freeman believes the best way to start the day is to prepare yourself the night before. As such, the last thing a religious Jews does before he or she retires to bed is to recite the Bedtime Shema. Rabbi Freeman deconstructs and presents all of the elements of this blessing in his article on Bedtime Countdown, so not only do you have the text of this set of prayers but their purpose and meaning from a Chasidic perspective.

I’ve been told that many of the mitzvot in Judaism aren’t forbidden to the Gentile as long as the Gentile does not perform them in the manner of the Jew. This not only has to do with the specific “mechanics” of performing a mitzvah such as prayer, but also not considering oneself as obligated to performing the mitzvah as is the Jewish person. However, given the number of times Jesus and his disciples refer to prayer in their teachings, I hardly think it is forbidden, in general, for a Christian to pray. What is in question is how or if a Christian should perform anything that resembles the Bedtime Shema.

To answer the question for myself, I perform a truncated version of this blessing at bedtime:

A song of ascents. Praiseworthy is each person who fears HASHEM, who walks in His paths. When you eat the labor of your hands, you are praiseworthy, and it is well with you. Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the inner chambers of your home; your children shall be like olive shoots surrounding your table. Behold! For so is blessed the man who fears HASHEM. May HASHEM bless you from Zion, and may you gaze upon the goodness of Jerusalem, all the days of your life. And may you see children born to children, peace upon Israel.

Tremble and sin not. Reflect in your hearts while on your beds, and be utterly silent. Selah.

Master of the universe. Who reigned
before any form was created,
At the time when His will brought all into being —
then as “King” was His Name proclaimed.
After all has ceased to be,
He, the Awesome One, will reign alone.
It is He Who was, He Who is,
and He Who shall remain, in splendor.
He is One — there is no second
to compare to Him, to declare as His equal.
Without beginning, without conclusion —
His is the power and dominion.
He is my God, my living Redeemer,
Rock of my pain in time of distress.
He is my banner, a refuge for me,
the portion in my cup on the day I call.
Into His hand I shall entrust my spirit
when I go to sleep — and I shall awaken!
With my spirit shall my body remain.
HASHEM is with me, I shall not fear.

I do not believe it is forbidden for the Gentile to desire God to be with us during our nightly rest and to watch over us and, if your last thoughts before entering “the realms of Morpheus” are of God, perhaps your first thoughts upon awaking will be of Him as well (and I’ll cover those “first thoughts” in a subsequent “meditation”).

Like my comments in yesterday’s meditation, I wonder just how practical some of Rabbi Freeman’s suggestions are for late night activities. I know the sages would study Torah late into the evening and even all night, but much after 9 p.m., my head feels like it’s stuffed with cotton candy and rusty Brillo pads. Nothing really complicated “computes” very much, and if I try to read, I find myself in that situation where I read a few sentences and immediately forget what I’ve read, or I try to read the same few sentences over and over again. If I’m not feeling sleepy before reading, “cozying up” in my bed becomes my primary desire after about five minutes of pouring over the printed page, regardless of what I’m reading.

Sorry, I’m not a “night owl.”

I suppose that’s one of the reasons I say a short version of the Bedtime Shema, besides avoiding any appearances of trying to pray like a Jewish person. A few minutes of prayer is all I have brain power for before my mind starts wandering down random paths.

I can’t deny that Rabbi Freeman’s principles are sound, and I suppose if I had a lifetime of habit and training in this sort of prayer life behind me as a foundation, it would be second nature by now, but as the Master said, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41) As I recall, he was chiding his closest disciples and friends over falling sleep during prayer as well.

I must admit to being kind of glad the Rabbinic rulings don’t apply to non-Jews if, for no other reason, than the following:

The Talmud (Berachot 13b.) is adamant about not sleeping on your back or on your stomach, but only on your side. Maimonides, who was not only a great codifier and philosopher but also one of the great doctors in history, suggests that you get in the habit of sleeping the first part of the night on your left, and end off on your right.

I tend to fall asleep on my right side but also on my stomach. Once asleep, people move around in bed hundreds of times during the night, so how could I possibly have control of my position? This is certainly an area of Jewish thought that completely eludes me. I also wonder about this:

Best insurance for sweet dreams: read tales of tzaddikim in bed until you fall asleep.

Either the Jewish sages weren’t married or they didn’t sleep with their wives. Can you imagine reading late into the night when your wife is trying to sleep right beside you?

“Moshe! Turn out the light. Can’t you see I’m trying to sleep here?”

On the other hand, how many times have you gone to bed in defeat or disgust because some problem or argument could not be resolved and laid to rest before the end of the day? I have far too many nights just like that. What Rabbi Freeman suggests would be far better, it only it were possible.

Be confident that you’ve put this day behind you, cleared up any misdemeanors between you and G-d, and made peace in your heart with other people. Get ready to turn in a wonderful report of all of G-d’s kindnesses and wonders.

I know Rabbi Freeman’s teachings are generally optimistic and encouraging (otherwise, why would we read them), which includes this brief commentary, taken from the lessons of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson, called Maturity of the Soul:

The ultimate elevation of the soul is to find it has purpose. To discover that it is not here simply to be, but to accomplish, to heal, to make better. In that moment of discovery, the soul graduates from being G-d’s little child to become His representative.

However, I’m not going to let Rabbi Freeman have the last word this time. Someone commented in response to his wee missive with something just as (or more) profound:

Perhaps our purpose is to “to be” G-d’s little child. It may be that we need to go through a life where we feel we need to accomplish, to heal and to make better, only to find ourselves coming full circle into simply “being” G-d’s child. Perhaps the journey of “finding” our purpose is needed to make this discovery …

“click your heels 3 times … you’ve always had the power … you just didn’t believe it”.

Walking in faith, sometimes you can stand up and actually take a step or two and sometimes you fall flat on your butt. Compared to actually walking with God in faith and trust, being a toddler learning how to take his first steps is child’s play.

Meditation, forgiveness, regret, and supernal compassion. Do night blessings always result in a blessed life? What will happen when I wake up tomorrow?

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7 thoughts on “Dream Not of Today”

  1. I enjoyed your morning meditation and I too am not a night owl. I use reading scripture or inspirational books as a way of relaxing at the end of the day, and is usually done while laying in bed. I’ve always wondered if I was of Jewish origin, and have been asked at times if I was Sephardic. I have such a love for the Jewish people and wish there were more around me here in the southwest. But whether I am or just a seeking Gentile, I still have a profound love for HASHEM. I am going to try and use your version of the blessing recited at night just so I can get into the practice of focusing my attention on my nightly rest and all the blessings He has bestowed on my life.

  2. I’m certain that I have no Jewish relatives in my background but nevertheless, I share your interest and “orientation” toward Jewish learning and worship. I don’t necessarily believe that such an interest must mean I’m some sort of “crypto-Jew,” though I know people who come to that conclusion about themselves. I just think God “wires” some of us to bridge the cultural and religious gap, at least a little, so that there will continue to be some sort of link between the Jewish people and the Gentile disciples of Jesus.

    If you want to say the Bedtime Shema or some portion of it, it would probably be easier if you use a siddur. That way, you can keep it on your nightstand and recite the blessing right before going to sleep.

  3. We use ‘The Koren Siddur” ….which has much wonderful information in addition to the prayers etc.

  4. Very interesting James. I’ve never heard of any of these things, but I’ve always read the bible in bed before sleep and always slept like Maimonides recommends, except when I had casts on both legs with a bar in between for 2 years from age 7-9. My mother instructed me as a child, “Never let the sun do down on your wrath,” and I have always done that. I even remember running 4 blocks one night over to my cousins house to reconcile with him over a big fight we had earlier that day. I am not Jewish either, and I don’t recite the Shema but now I am going write it in hebrew onto one of those blank pages in the back of my bible and practice it, my prayer is always, “Blessed L-rd G-d of Abraham, Yitzak and Yacov, King of the Universe, thank you for bringing me through the day, please take me through the night, please help me retain and remember what I have read tonight and bless it to my understanding. Please cause me to dream of things that will help me know and do your divine will for me, and if you could throw in a dream or two of where I am living back in the time of the patriarchs, I would be thankful. And He has because I have had some doozies.

    I’ve never had trouble falling to sleep, or getting a refreshing good nights sleep, despite the arthritis in my hips and my sleep apnea. Reading before bed has been such a habit since I was around 4yrs I have to stop myself because I lose track of time. I am doubly blessed in that I am also such a cheerful morning person nearly everyone hates to be around me at that time except kids and pets…

    Thanks for all the awesome links James, I really love your blog and have been following it for awhile now, so I thought I should let you know and get more involved (cause I am way too lazy to start my own). I’m pulling for ya, keep your stick on the ice as we say here in Canada.

    Brad

  5. Thanks for chiming in, Brad. I’m glad you like the blog.

    I suspect some of the “values” Rabbi Freeman describes in relation to getting a good night’s sleep and preparing for the next day aren’t unique to the Chasidim and are shared with Christianity. The values are there, but it’s a matter of first putting them into practice and then making them a habit, as you obviously have done.

    Blessings.

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