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Dozing on the Days of Awe

The Jewish New Year brings a long day of services. What happens if you nod off? (Edmon J. Rodman)

The Jewish New Year brings a long day of services. What happens if you nod off? (Edmon J. Rodman)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Don’t let Maimonides catch you napping on Rosh HaShanah.

His famous quote, “Awake, awake, you slumberers from your sleep, inspect your actions and return" — usually found in the High Holidays prayer book before the sounding of the shofar — is meant as the ultimate shluf alarm, his righteous tap on your shoulder.

But what if while sitting in services one Jewish New Year’s Day you should “accidentally” hit the snooze button and head off into the realm of somnambulant psalms?

Some of us seem to become so drowsy the second we set foot in a synagogue. Then the passages seem long, the air conditioning makes us feel cool and comfy, words barely familiar buzz around our ears, the rabbi goes on and on … our lids grow so heavy.

As our heads lurch forward, startling us awake, we wish there was a Starbucks in the social hall or a private place to sacrifice a can of Red Bull. For many of us who work long hours, the prayers and sermons of the Days of Awe work best when they are preceded by nights of ahh.

The need for sleep and wakefulness is even emphasized in the liturgy: On Rosh HaShanah morning, as on every other day during the year, we are to thank God for removing “sleep from our eyes, slumber from our eyelids,” as well as "restoring vigor to the weary.” Later in the morning, the shofar’s blast calls us to physical and spiritual attention.

On Yom Kippur afternoon, when we are tired, hungry and out of it, we read the story of Jonah, who while heading by sea away from where God wants him to go, falls into a deep sleep in the ship’s hold. While he’s napping, the sky storms and the sea crashes; the ship begins to founder.

“How can you be sleeping so soundly!” the captain cries out to him.

To save the crew and ship, Jonah needs to rouse himself, and during the High Holidays we want to rouse ourselves, too. After all, apparently something important is going on, and that “gentle” elbow in the side from our partner can leave a mark.

In talking about the relationship of sleep to the High Holidays, Dr. Rubin Naiman, the sleep specialist and a clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine, cited Shabbat as an example of how sleep relates to our spirituality.

“It’s been a reminder to slow down and sleep,” he said in a phone interview from his Tucson home. "Sleep is not simply unconsciousness; it refers to the deepest part of ourselves.

“My parents, who were Holocaust survivors, taught me to honor sleep,” said Naiman, who grew up in a traditional Jewish home.

Naiman feels sleep helped them to survive. In his book, "Healing Night: The Science and Spirit of Sleeping, Dreaming, and Awakening," he suggests a battle between divine and man-made forces as a reason for our sleep deficits.

“When God said, ‘Let there be light,’ he divided it equally with night," he wrote. "But when Edison said let there be even more light, he appropriated it from night. And there are serious casualties."

To avoid being a casualty, Naiman has a couple of suggestions.

“It’s not like you can prepare the night before. You need to run up to it," he said.

While reminding that sleep requirements differ, Naiman said that “few people can get by with less than seven to nine hours.”

To find a natural balance between sleeping and waking, he suggested “avoiding excessive stimulation.” But perhaps to the chagrin of pulpit rabbis everywhere, Naiman suggested that if growing drowsy, we should “stop fighting sleepiness” and go with it.

“Falling asleep is an act of faith," he said. "Think of it as diving into a pool of water; close your eyes and descend.”

In other words, if you feel the need, it’s OK to shut your eyes.

At first I thought, napping through Rosh HaShanah: What’s next, recliners instead of pews?

But later that day, taking the doctor’s advice, I closed my eyes to take a nap and re-thought our conversation. Feeling a pleasant wave come over me, I wondered if Naiman was on to something.

While on the couch, I remembered being in synagogue on Shabbat closing my eyes and saying the Shema. More than once I kept them closed a few beats longer, even while chanting the first paragraph. When I finally opened my eyes, I had felt refreshed.

I also remembered on Rosh HaShanah seeing several members of my congregation closing their eyes while the ba’al tekiah sounded the horn. Naiman had said the shofar’s blasts on Rosh HaShanah were “calling people to a higher state of wakefulness.” Were those with their eyes shut experiencing wakefulness within?

This year I would close my eyes and see.

(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.)

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