Tag Archives: sleep

Chayei Sarah: The Days of the Years of Life

abrahamic-covenantAnd these are the days of the years of the life of Avraham which he lived; a hundred years and seventy years and five years. And Avraham expired and he died in a good age, mature and satiated and was gathered to his people.

Genesis 25:7-8

Reb Avraham, the son of the Vilna Gaon, testifies about his father:

“For over fifty years he never slept more than half an hour at a time…Even when his health began to fail, he did not set aside his holy learning. Immediately, he would rise like a lion, in fear and dread of his Creator, wash his hands, and recite his morning blessings with a joy and awe which is beyond description. Afterwards, he would stand on his feet from before midnight until the first light of dawn learning Gemora and Poskim in a beautiful and awesome voice…Whoever heard it was moved with deep feelings of holiness.”

Arriving in Jerusalem, one summer, I immediately made contact with my good friend and study partner, Reb Reuven, and we agreed to get busy the next morning studying an hour or more before Davening. The next morning I made it on time but I was suffering from jet lag, sleeplessness, and exhaustion. I commented to my friend that I don’t know how the Vilna Gaon did it. I can’t imagine what it means to only sleep at half hour intervals four times per day for the course of a lifetime. He told me, “It’s not true!”

-Rabbi Label Lam
Commentary for Torah Portion Chayei Sarah

I periodically suffer from insomnia. Some nights are better than others. In extreme cases, I walk around like a zombie the next day, barely able to think. All the coffee in the world doesn’t turn me back into a human being. Yesterday (as I write this) was such a day. I finally collapsed into bed at 7:30 p.m. and fitfully drifted off. Only to wake up on several occasions during the night. Fortunately, on each occasion, I was able to go back to sleep. I chose not to go to the gym this morning in order to spend an extra hour in bed, finally getting up at a few minutes after five.

I feel much better today. I have my brain back.

Rabbi Lam’s commentary helps me realize though that it’s not just the number of hours you are awake or asleep, but how you use them. I was disappointed that, even in my dreams last night, I was focused on the mundane and ordinary rather than anything more lofty. The previous day, I could hardly concentrate on anything except what I absolutely had to get done, which tends to be mundane and ordinary.

Which was too bad, because I received some rather inspiring reading material that I wanted to dig into, but fatigue argued with my desire and fatigue won.

Vilna-Gaon-207x300I don’t know how the Vilna Gaon did it either. It seems like a physical impossibility. I’ve learned to take such tales of the great sages with a grain of salt, so to speak, which probably wouldn’t endear me to many in Orthodox Judaism. On the other hand, these tales often act as an inspiration for a more important principle that is to be grasped and applied to our day-to-day experiences.

Rabbi Lam comments:

How are living “the days of years of the life” different than living just the “years of the life”? What is the great advantage of living in units of days? It’s a nice aphorism, “One day a time!” but how does that translate into daily life? What does it mean to live each day as if it was the only day?

Which reminds me of this.

And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” And He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Matthew 26:39-41 (NASB)

This was perhaps the most important night in the Master’s short, human life, and his closest disciples and companions couldn’t keep their eyes open for even one small hour.

I know the feeling, although last night was hardly the most important night for anything in particular.

Or was it?

He told me, “It’s not true!” I insisted I had read an authenticated biography of the Gaon and that it was certainly true that he only slept two hours in total each day. He told me again that it was not true and so I argued my case again only to be countered with the “not true” claim. Eventually Reuven explained and I realized how right he was. He told me, “It’s not true that the Vilna Gaon only slept two hours each day! He learned Torah twenty-two hours each day!” I understood that he was not into sleep deprivation as we imagine but rather the sublime joy of learning Torah.

It’s not true that the Vilna Gaon slept only a total of two hours a night. It is true that he studied Torah twenty-two hours a day.

Well, maybe not. He had to eat sometime, and I don’t doubt that various biological, family, social, and other demands may have consumed some portion of those twenty-two hours.

intimate-prayerBut this is still an important lesson to be learned. It’s not the amount of time you have that’s so important but what you do with it. What are your priorities? For that matter, what are my priorities? It is true that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, but what about when you are well rested and the flesh is strong (or stronger)? Do you spend your time in Torah study or in watching TV? Do you spend your time in prayer or in surfing the web? Do you spend your time in service to others or by serving yourself?

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t enjoy life and indulge yourself as you are able to (within the will of God), but I am saying that how you spend your time, day by day, hour by hour, defines your priorities. If you pray to God to be of greater service to Him but spend most of your time being of service only to yourself, you betray what and who is really important to you.

“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.

Matthew 7:15-20 (NASB)

It’s nice to have space and a little slack time to relax and appreciate life instead of being on the go, go, go, but space is there so you (and I) can grow into it. It’s like when I was a kid and my parents bought me shoes half to a full size bigger than my feet because they knew I’d rapidly grow into that space.

That is why we have the mitzvot, prayer, Bible study, volunteering for charitable services, visiting those who are sick. It’s what we do to fill the space and time God gives us in our lives.

Rabbi Lam asks, How are living “the days of years of the life” different than living just the “years of the life”? Each day of our life is a lifetime within itself.

Today I shall learn to better spend my time in the service of God, with Bible study, in prayer, in meditation on His Word, in seeking an encounter with the Divine.

Good Shabbos.

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

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?