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Do You Find Yourself Dozing on the Days of Awe?

September 22, 2011
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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 Holiday prayerbook 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 drowsy the moment we set foot in a synagogue. The liturgy seems 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, we 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. While heading by sea away from where God wants him to go, he 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; during the High Holidays, we want to rouse ourselves, too.

In talking about the relationship of sleep to the High Holidays, Dr. Rubin Naiman, a sleep specialist and 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. He believes sleep helped his parents 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, including taking heed that "few people can get by with less than seven to nine hours."

And, he warned, "it's not like you can prepare the night before. You need to run up to it."

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."

I remember seeing several members of my congregation closing their eyes while the ba'al tekiah sounded the shofar. 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 will close my eyes and see.

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