The Spiritual Practice of Sleeping and Waking


I had a dream over Thanksgiving weekend. I was in my shul office. It was much bigger than my office actually. I was getting ready for Shabbat services. But, I couldn’t go, because people kept coming in to my office. New members were walking in, lots of them. Children were playing games. One child was playing the piano. I couldn’t convince people to leave my office, stop schmoozing and go to Shabbat services.

And, I remember being torn: I thought – well, I wish they would go to services – on the other hand, they are in the shul building, and they are having a good time, and I guess that’s a good thing in and of itself. And, lots of people are coming—and that’s good – even though they seem to be here for a reason other than coming to services.

I’ll leave the analysis of the content of the dream to you. What I want to focus on today is the fact that I dreamed at all – and whether the dreaming is all nonsense, or whether there is some purpose in it. The past several parshiyot have featured lots of dreams. Jacob has a fantastic dream. Joseph dreams. Now, Pharoah dreams. In each case, the dreams changed their lives.

Most of the commentators, of course, focus on the content of the dreams. Some of them, like Lawrence Kushner, focus on what happens when the dreamer wakes up. Aviva Zornberg looks in a very direction. Zornberg focuses on sleep. Looking at Jacob’s dream, she says: it’s true, Jacob wakes up enlightened and energized. But, if he hadn’t gone to sleep, he never would have had this fantastic dream. And, the same could be true for Joseph and Pharoah. Their entire future is predicated on their going to sleep.

In our Tradition, waking up in the morning is a symbol of new hope, new possibility, new awareness. But, none of this would be possible without sleep. So, I’d like to suggest that part of the yin and yang of Jewish spiritual living is the rhythm of sleeping and waking. We all understand the value of waking. What is the spiritual value of sleeping?

A place where we can really see the value of sleep is Adam and Eve. Adam is missing something. He’s searching for something. There is a problem in his life he cannot solve. When is he able to find what he is looking for? When he goes to sleep! When he wakes up, Eve, the answer to his search is standing before him.

Why did the answer appear before Adam after sleep? Well, first because he stopped looking. Sometimes, we try too hard. I’ve mentioned before the wonderful custom of saying a special phrase when we lose our keys or some other familiar object. We say: Ha’col b’chezcat somin ad she’meir hakadosh baruch hu et eineihem/everyone is like a blind person until God opens our eyes. Saying this is an act of surrender. It’s a humble acceptance that we don’t know. And, that’s the first step in growth: honest acceptance of our limitations. Sleeping is a humble admission that we’ve reached the end of our powers for the day. It’s an acceptance of what we cannot do. And, admitting what we don’t know is the first step in growing beyond where we are now.

Secondly, to be awake is to be focused. The more alert we are, the more focused. And, focus is narrow, by definition. If we want to look outside the box, we have to leave the box. What is the box? It’s our rational assumptions, the world view we have constructed. A coherent world view is naturally narrow. To grow, we have to be willing to descend into incoherence, to break apart that world view, to de-construct it, so we can re-construct ourselves.

That’s what happens when we dream. Reality goes out the window. Impossible combinations are formed. When we awake, because the puzzle pieces have been scrambled, we have the ability to re-assemble them in a different way. We have the opportunity to re-create ourselves, to construct a new reality, a new way of looking at the world.

When we arise in the morning, one of the blessings we say in the morning is ‘thank you God for stretching out the earth over the waters.’ Once this was said the moment we put our feet on the ground for the first time in the morning. The blessing is a reference to the dawn of creation. In the beginning, there was watery chaos, but then God separated the earth from the jumbled up water/earth, and the world was born.

We have the opportunity to re-experience the movement from chaos to order each morning, and thus the rebirth of the world and ourselves. Art Green once wrote that the blessing ‘roka ha’aretz al ha’mayim’ could be seen as a reference to the re-emergence of consciousness when we wake up. What an idea! Each night, we descend into chaos again, emotionally and mentally. And, when we wake up, potentially, a brand new creation, as we have the opportunity to re-order our universe.

The idea of a daily re-invention of ourselves fits nicely with what Rabbi Mark Spiro taught us a few weeks ago in class. He pointed out that the ritual handwashing we do in the morning after getting out of bed (without a blessing) is meant to banish the remnants of ritual impurity that cling to us. When we sleep, it’s as if our soul leaves our body. What’s left behind, a lifeless body would normally convey ritual impurity to the touch. When we awaken, there is a tradition that the soul re-enters the body, squeezes back in, up until the finger tips, which are lifeless until we help them along with a ritual washing. So hand-washing in the morning is like a mini-mikvah. It’s a death to life re-birth experience.

One of my students, Ruth Siboni, told me she believes that the fast of Yom Kippur puts space between our old self and our new self. It’s as if the old self dies and the new self is reborn. And, the fast puts some psychological space between the two, a kind of wilderness we cross to get to the Promised Land. We can also look at sleep this way, as putting space between our old self and our new self. The journey through the wilderness of sleep makes it possible for us to start over the next day. No matter what happened yesterday, today is a new day.

But, the act of going to sleep takes courage and faith. That’s why kids have trouble with it. It takes courage and faith to surrender consciousness, awareness, and our world view and go to sleep. That’s why we say prayers before bedtime, not just because we are physically vulnerable when we sleep. It’s that we are emotionally, mentally, psychologically vulnerable. We are leaving our safe world view, as we journey into the night. But, that willingness to leave our safe, coherent world is what enables us to be re-born. Ultimately, Jacob is re-invented in the middle of the night (he receives a new name, Yisrael). So is Joseph, so is Pharoah.

In our workaholic environment, doing is glorified. The more we can cram into a day, the better, the more we can add to our to do list, the more worthy we are. Not doing is not valued. Sleep is wasting time. Our Tradition has a different way of looking at sleep. So, think of this before your shabbes nap today: One of the most important rituals we have is the practice of going to sleep and waking. It’s not just about rest. It’s a rhythm of breaking ourselves apart and re-assembling each day.

Sleep is a spiritual practice. Or more accurately, sleep is part of the yin and yang of the spiritual practice of sleeping and waking. That’s why we have services at 10am on Shabbat. We can sleep a little later. But, sleeping is only part one. Reflecting on our sleep when we wake up is part two.

That is the purpose of the prayers we say before we go to bed and when we wake up in the morning: to make the practice of sleeping and waking intentional, to turn what would appear to be just a biological practice into a spiritual opportunity. If we bring intention to our sleeping and waking, then there is the possibility that we will in fact re-invent ourselves and become new. For that to happen, we have to see sleep not as a mere break in the action, not as the enemy of our to do list, but as an essential ingredient in our spiritual growth.

So, to the kavvanot I have suggested for our Five Minute Prayer Experience, we can add this one. When we get up in the morning and put our feet on the ground, let us be conscious of the fact that we have left the watery chaos of sleep and dreams and we have re-entered the world of order. We now have the chance to create a new world order—first by re-ordering our own world – our values, our priorities, the way we look, the way we see. When we do that, we are creating the world anew, starting with ourselves.

Baruch ata Adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam, roka ha’aretz al ha’mayim.
Blessing our You, Lord our God, who puts ground under my feet, giving me a stable and consistent view of the world, but who also invites me to break apart, expand, and re-create that world with the new day.