Essays 2020 / Finalists
In today’s culture of instant gratification and perpetual motion, society has come to dislike open spaces of time, unfilled with stimulation. We have come to crave constant action and stimulation. In a world where the focus is on achievement, people are often resisting the action of nothing, of simply creating space and pause. With the aid of electricity we are able to overlook the natural cycle of the day and find ourselves surprised when the clock shows the wee am hours. We prefer to be awake, even to waste time, as opposed to spending the night hours clocking in the necessary amount of sleep. I would jokingly tell a friend “I ideologically disagree with sleep”, explaining-“ why should I sleep if I can be getting so much done….”
Personally, I have a hard time falling asleep at night, perhaps because I have convinced myself I don’t like to sleep. Studies show that we spend 25-30% percent of our lives sleeping, which seems to be an incredible waste of time! Whatever emotional relationship one has with sleep, it’s ultimately necessary to lead a productive life. While death from sleep is uncommon, studies show that after a certain amount of time, organs begin to shut down. Luckily our bodies have the mechanism that after a day or two, we simply fall asleep from exhaustion. The undisputed consensus is that sleep is needed for us to function properly. Sleep is discussed in halacha as a basic requirement of ונשמרתם מאוד לנפשיכם. The Rambam clearly prescribes 6-8 hours of daily sleep,and the Alter Rebbe writes that a teacher must not go to sleep late to avoid negatively affecting his teaching efficiency.(1) The Shulchan Aruch is filled with Halachos about sleep.
These guidelines range from the correct sleeping position to the clothes to wear to sleep. This shows that sleeping holds an important place in Torah and in the life of a Jew. Knowing that alone, however, is apparently not enough to motivate us to push ourselves to get to bed on time. By exploring what Chassidus teaches about sleep, we will gain the answers to a deeper meaning of sleep, why we need it, and how sleep is indeed productive. Through learning the chassidic perspective one can gain motivation to get the additional sleep we should be getting.
Below is a collection of thoughts and teachings on the value of sleep based on the teachings of Chassidus.
On the day the Jewish nation was about to receive the Torah at Sinai, morning came and the Jews were still fast asleep. The Midrash describes the sleep the Jews had as “sweet sleep,” since Hashem made a miracle and the mosquitos did not bite, allowing them to sleep peacefully. Generations later, on that night on the calendar, Jews stay up the whole night on Shavous, the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah, and learn, to make up for the fact that the Jews spent the night before the giving the Torah sleeping, rather than preparing. The Rebbe points out that the Torah will only share a negative anecdote about our people, using negative terms, if the specific language used will provide guidance and a lesson for our lives.
It is impossible to say that we make up for this incident because our forefathers simply overslept and we must do the opposite. If so, the Midrash would not elaborate on the story. Chassidus explains that in the structure of man, we have a soul and body, with the body being subservient to the soul. The soul is sent down to this world specifically in a body, for this is the only way to fulfill its purpose. At the same time, the body still limits the soul-the body needs to be fed, occupied, taken care of, etc, thereby covering up the true expression of the soul, the Neshama. It is when the body is sleeping that the Neshama gets to express itself fully. It is known that sleep is halachically considered 1/60th of dead. Although the body is still alive, during the time it’s sleeping the neshama rises to its source, to the greatest heights.
The Jews, standing the night before the giving of the Torah, have already prepared for 7 entire weeks, refining themselves spiritually to accept the Torah. At this point, the Jews felt that they had reached a level where they would be able to receive the Torah while asleep. They intended to get the Torah when the Neshama is thriving in the greatest heights, not tied down to a physical body. In truth, the Jews were at this level, which reflects in the Midrash’s language used-“sweet sleep.” Hashem acknowledged their good intentions and actually aided them in their attempt to receive the Torah in this state, and caused the mosquitos to cease from biting. The mistake the Jews made is that they missed the goal of the Torah, which in is to serve Hashem with mitzvos utilizing our physical bodies in its full capacity. Our tradition of staying up and learning is not a punishment for a wrongdoing, but a tikun, a fix, for their mistake.(2)
This explanation shows us that sleep is not a simple mundane activity, but is a spiritual experience as well. It holds intense power on the Neshama level. However, we need to understand sleep as it pertains to us.
A catalyst for greater growth
The Rebbe has a prolific discourse that focuses on the words of the Megilla בלילה ההוא נדדה שנת מלך. These words tell about the night that Achashverosh couldn’t sleep, which led to the beginning of the miracle of salvation. Chassidus explains that anytime the words king is mentioned, it’s analogous to Hashem. In the discourse, we find a deep discussion on sleep, analyzing Hashem’s spiritual state of “sleep” in the Purim story. It explains that sleep is when the body reaches a complete state. When asleep, not only are our physical limbs intact, but our faculties (seeing, hearing, intellect etc) are intact as well. This is evident in the fact that there are those that can dream up Torah novelties during the time they sleep. The main difference between being awake and being asleep is that the hierarchy of our faculties no longer apply. This is actually a form of reverting to how those same faculties originated from their source before being put into a specific order. Sleep is a sort of topsy-turvy world where two opposing ideas can exist at the same time. Although the abilities are comprised in the same way they are within the body, there is an advantage to the abilities themselves-they are on their essence level, where they rise to their source and draw down energy anew. This is what it means when G-d “sleeps”, He allows good and bad to exist at the same time. This is a seeming disadvantage as sleep is likened to Galus, exile, where the abilities of Hashem are hidden. The truth of good and bad, strong and weak are confused and not clearly seen.
However, sleep/galus holds something even deeper. Galus is compared to pregnancy, and Geulah, birth. While the child is greatly concealed during pregnancy, pregnancy is an essential step of birth. The concealment is a period of extreme growth and connection. Only through sleep, Galus,can we reach the point of Geulah, where Hashem’s light and abilities will shine bright and clear.(3)
Sleep is what brings us to awakeness. We experience a higher elevation of our abilities, giving us a greater set of abilities for the next day.
We can all agree that after an ample amount of sleep we wake up feeling refreshed. Many of us know to expect a bad mood, low energy, or lack of focus after a late night. In a shabbos talk, the Rebbe discussed the concept of sleep, and shared that when we sleep, we get a new energy, as the Neshama goes up and gets additional power, which aids us with our learning in Torah and especially chassidus.(4)
When the Jews were traveling in the desert, they were constantly following Hashem’s command, be it traveling or setting up encampments to rest. The Rebbe points out that when stopping, a Jew may feel inactive, and even disconnected, from Hashem’s will. The instruction in the desert of when to come and go, when to stop and start applied to all, from Moshe to the youngest child. This teachers us how Hashem’s command applies universally in all generations. The same way traveling is Hashem’s command, so is stopping to encamp. When a Yid sleeps, he is actively fulfilling Hashem’s mission the same way as if he was awake and doing Mitzvos.(5)
The Rebbe Rashab would often have his granddaughter Shaina over for Shabbos. Once, he taught her that everything we do on Shabbos needs to be in honor of The Day. The young girl questioned if that applies to sleeping. If she’s sleeping how can she have the intention that it is in honor of Shabbos. The Rebbe Rashab disagreed, and explained how even sleep needs to be holy, and if you go to sleep with the intention that it’s holy, it becomes holy!(6)
When we sleep, we are indeed achieving.
Now that we have the spiritual background of sleep, we can appreciate the holiness, purpose, and meaning of sleep.
Preparation for Sleep
Our preparation for sleep affects the quality of the sleep itself. We see this in the fact that when a person lays down with a decision to wake up at a certain time, they wake up naturally on their own! If you lie down properly, your sleep will be proper as well, giving you strength for the next day.(7)
Rabbi Meir of Premishlan explained: If you went to bed like a horse, don’t expect to get up like a lion. But if you go to bed like a lion, knowing full well before whom you lie and what He wants from you, then you will be able to enthusiastically arise the next morning to serve Him.
In addition to the bedtime routine prescribed by Halacha ,there are many strategies for enhancing and ensuring ideal sleep in Chassidus.
Stories of role models who have overcome adversity create a sense of control and has proven to lesson levels of anxiety. Chassidishe stories remind us of our values and the ability for good to triumph over evil. A reassuring thought to end the day with.
Music is a very common tool of relaxation, and many end their day with a destressing playlist. A niggun holds the power to cleanse the soul and inspire the spirit, as is told by our Rebbeim and is clearly seen in countless stories of Chassidim. “If words are the pen of the heart,” taught the Alter Rebbe, “then melody is the pen of the soul.” A niggun is a vehicle for free expression of the Neshama-what better way is there to prepare your Neshama for its elevating journey than to listen to a Niggun?
Reflecting on one’s day, and contemplating on how one can do better the next day is beneficial for a proper night of sleep. While journaling and nighttime meditations are sweeping modern culture, promoting mindfulness , a nightly accounting has been part of the Chassid’s routine for generations.
Chassidus sheds light on the heights we reach and the achievements we make while we sleep. Our Neshama achieves the greatest connection with Hashem as we sleep, experiencing the sublime. It is clear that in spirituality, sleeping gives us something we don’t receive while awake. Our Neshama returns refreshed and on a higher level than when we went to sleep. But what does this mean to us?
A basic strategy in Chassidic life and in refining oneself is Hisbonenus,literally translated as meditation. Hisbonenus is the process of focusing one’s mind on an intellectual concept for a period of time— contemplating, concentrating, and applying-until it becomes part and parcel with you. It does not give instant results, but results that last. We can apply Hisbonenus to our discussion of sleep, and set up a nightly meditation, along the lines of:
“As a Neshama in a Body, a part of G-d, doing practical Mitzvos as an awake person, is my goal, but not the entire part of my service of G-d. I need a nightly refreshment, when my Neshama can reunite with its source and bask in all kinds of spiritual worlds that are way beyond my comprehension. My intellectual and emotional abilities are active as well, and achieve differently while I sleep. It may be on a different plane that I don’t understand, but it is happening, and key to my functioning as a human and even more so, a Jew. Although I may not feel it, as it’s concealed, it is very real. Concealment leads to revelation, and I will wake up with greater strengths because of this concealment. This necessary concealment itself is a Mitzvah-just as Hashem commanded me to use my day when I am awake for Him, so too, my sleep can be made holy-with the recognition that this is holy!”
Keeping this in mind and coupling it with a proper sleep routine and preparation, as instructed in Torah and Chassidus, we can achieve proper, and therefore holy sleep. Sweet dreams!
הלכות תלמוד תורה 1:12 1
2 (שיחות חג השבועות, תשכ״ב)
3 (מאמרים – ספר המאמרים מלוקט כרך ב’ עמוד 266 -נדדה שנת המלך)
התוועדיות תשנ”ב, כ”ח טבת 4
5 JEM, Sicha from Parshas Behaaloscha, Yud gimmel Sivan 5747
שיחות קודש תשכ”ה, חלק א’ דף 265 6
התוועדויות – שנת תשי”ב חלק ראשון עמוד 31 7