This past Shabbat at Beth Israel, we had the second of two planned programs we called Brunch and Learn. Instead of gathering for a kiddush lunch after the service ended, we took a break in the middle for some Torah study and a kiddush brunch which was followed by a Musaf service. In many ways, Shabbat is all about routine but I think it does us good every once in a while to vary that routine and perhaps discover a new way to enjoy Shabbat.
Our Torah study this week was a continuation of our series on Jewish Perspectives on Health and focused on the subject of sleep in Jewish tradition. Traditional texts address just about every subject imaginable and sleep is no exception.
There is a tension in Rabbinic texts concerning sleep. On the one hand, sleep is considered to be a waste of precious time to study Torah or to observe mitzvot. It is considered to be a sign of the difference between ourselves and God- according to one midrash, the angels were able to differentiate Adam from God only when God put Adam into a deep sleep- and thus could be viewed as a sign of weakness.
And yet, the Rabbis also recognized the critical role adequate sleep plays in our lives. It is interesting to me that actions which are prohibited on Yom Kippur are actions which focus on our human needs. We try to be “angels” on that day, turning away from our drives to eat and drink, engage in sexual activity and our attention to our physical bodies. And yet, there is no prohibition on sleep. I believe this reflects our Rabbis’ understanding that while it is possible to think seriously while being hungry or thirsty, one couldn’t engage in serious teshuva, serious repentance and prayer without being sufficiently awake and alert.
So, there are texts which praise sleep as providing the rejuvenation necessary to do our best as human beings. The Talmud records that people were discouraged from taking a vow to stay awake and Maimonides indicates that sleeping 8 hours a night is sufficient. He doesn’t discourage people from getting that amount of sleep which many say is the appropriate amount for an adult.
Sleep is a precious commodity in our lives today. So many of us find ourselves struggling to get adequate sleep and keeping long hours is only one of the issues. I know that for many, this is a serious medical issue and one which should be referred to a physician. But, for others, it seems to be a matter of choice. With so much emphasis on being “connected” today, it seems increasingly difficult to allow ourselves the luxury of being out of touch for 8 hours a night. And yet, we need, all of us, to try harder. We know how dangerous lack of adequate sleep can be. Perhaps, to go back to the midrash I referred to earlier, we should admit that we are not all powerful- that we are not God- and that the world will survive well enough without us as we get a good night’s sleep. In fact, the world will be better off as we will be more equipped not only to study Torah but also to engage in the acts of Tikkun Olam if we can keep our eyes open during the day.