“I will grant peace to the land; you will lie down and none shall make you afraid (Leviticus 26:6).”
Sleep is a basic human need.
Good sleep helps us find solutions to challenges, unleashes creativity and refreshes us with a new perspective. This is why providing for peaceful, uninterrupted sleep is part of our social contract. It is something we all seek.
But sleep may often be interrupted by fear. Whether in Jewish history or the present day, individuals under psychological stress find it hard to dive into peaceful sleep. The Hashkiveinu prayer, which we recite nightly, offers some comfort as we hope to lie down in the embrace of God’s sheltering wing. In the Psalms, we say “God neither slumbers nor sleeps.” We believe God keeps watch so we don’t have to, and acknowledge that all life is within God’s wide vision.
In just a week, we will be entering Shavuot, the holiday well known for the Tikkun Leil Shavuot – a night of staying awake for the sake of study. In fact, it is a tikkun, a repair for our lack of preparedness as we received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Pulling this all-nighter is a direct fix to our general recalcitrance.
The Torah also mentions a night watch that begins our season of counting the omer, the leil shimurim, with the redemption from Egypt on Passover. In the Talmud, the rabbis discuss, “a sleep which is not sleep,” and “a wakefulness which is not wakefulness.”
They conclude that if one is just dozing off, they may still partake in the festive meal, but if the person is incomprehensible, the person cannot partake. We might imagine that all too often we are awake without being awake – in other words, we are awake, but not present. We are in the room, but not listening. This is perhaps more dangerous than semi-sleep.
As a mother, I am quite familiar with losing sleep. My husband and I often joke that since God neither slumbers nor sleeps, we are simply in divine territory. And perhaps that is the meaning of our sleepless study – the more that we learn, the more truth we understand about the world, the more we are committed to the well-being of others, the more sleep we might naturally lose. And yet we have faith in God’s watchfulness.
May we be blessed with the courage and openness of heart to engage with our fears and concerns head on, and may we also know ultimately, our faith in God provides for the peace we need to refresh and renew, as God’s watch over the people of Israel is constant.
Rabbi Elyssa Joy Austerklein is rabbi at Beth El Congregation in Akron.