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Through The Eyes of a Woman

Shavuos: The Philosophy of Sleep

There is a famous custom that is observed by almost everyone, not only by chassidim -- people stay up all night on Shavuos and read the Tikkun Leil Shavuos, selections from the entire Torah, including Chumash, the Prophets and Writings, Mishnah, Gemara, Zohar, and so on. Some people do not recite the Tikkun but simply study the entire night, until morning.

What is the reason for this custom that Yidden stay up very late on Shavuos, or don't sleep at all? This is based on an event that is not even mentioned in the Chumash, but only in the Midrash. The Midrash states that the night before the Giving of the Torah, the Jewish people went to sleep. Why did they go to sleep the night before getting the Torah? "Because sleeping on Shavuos night is sweet, and the night is short!" The Midrash goes on to say that during that night a miracle occurred and mosquitoes did not bite them. I don't know where you live, but where I live, in Kfar Chabad, we have a mosquito plague, and very often you wake up in the middle of the night -- eeeee... You try and find that mosquito that's not letting you sleep. This can go on for hours. But that night, the mosquitoes didn't bother anybody. It was a very sweet and peaceful sleep.

When HaShem came in the morning to give them the Torah, the Midrash continues, they were still sleeping. HaShem says, "I came and there was no one; I called and there was no answer." HaShem is ready to give them this great gift and everybody's asleep. HaShem has to wake them up and he says, Nu, it's time to get the Torah.

This is what the Midrash states. But what does it mean? There's obviously more to it than meets the eye. The Rebbe points out that the Torah is always very, very careful about not saying a bad word. In other words, the Torah in general expresses things in a positive way. When the Torah says something negative, such as calling an animal tameh (spiritually impure), this is only for the purpose of practical instruction. Where no practical instruction is intended, the Torah will go out of its way to use positive words. This you will probably remember from Parshas Noach -- the Torah describes impure animals as those "which are not pure," rather than as impure. But when it comes to matters pertaining to kashrus, when one has to know the Halachah clearly, the Torah does use negative expressions, such as tameh. But normally, bad words don't have to cross your lips; use a euphemism, unless you have a specific reason to be blunt and explicit. For example, there is a very serious disease, a malignant disease, that one shouldn't call by its name, for that adds to its power. Or when you're talking about certain parts of life that are very intimate, you can talk about them in a way that people know what you mean, without being explicit.

Accordingly, why does the Midrash speak so disparagingly about the Yidden before receiving the Torah? Let's say they didn't do such a good thing -- is there any reason to publicize it so that all future generations will know how bad they were, that instead of waiting up eagerly for the Torah they went to sleep? That's not such a nice thing to say. The Torah could have overlooked it. What kind of teaching is it for us to know that our forefathers did something that isn't so great? After all, ever since then we're doing a Tikkun for it, we're trying to repair it, which means that it wasn't a good thing. So let's just say simply that they overslept a little, and we say Tikkun. But the Midrash goes into great detail.

Obviously if the Midrash, which is part of Torah, does choose to go into this incident with all of the details, there are several things that must be learned: (a) It must be important to know every one of those details; (b) it must be something that is relevant and a teaching to us; and (c) it's probably not that bad.

However, when we look at it through the eyes of Chabad Chassidus, what appear to be negative things change completely. When one sees it from the inner-dimensional viewpoint, the entire incident takes on a completely different perspective. If one does not learn Chassidus it just doesn't make sense that they went to sleep and overslept on that night, because we know that from the very day they came out of Egypt they started counting the Omer! They didn't have the mitzvah of counting the Omer -- that was only given at Mount Sinai after the Torah was given to us -- but the Yidden counted on their own, in a spontaneous way. They started counting because of the excitement of looking forward to the Torah. It was a natural thing. When you want something you count the days until it arrives. During each day of the seven weeks of the counting, every day they rose to a higher and higher spiritual level. So you can imagine that by the time they reached the 49th day of counting and the 49th level of holiness, they were on a much higher level than they were the day they began the counting. Obviously, then, they were able to appreciate the event of the Giving of the Torah in a much higher way. On the night before they received the Torah, having reached a higher level of understanding and sensitivity -- precisely now they went to sleep, and overslept?! It just doesn't make sense.

The Rebbe explains that HaShem gave us a Neshamah (soul) and he clothed the Neshamah in a body. We are fully aware of the fact that our body is what we see and experience. It is obvious, but it's only a cover-up for the soul which is inside and enlivens and activates the body. When the Neshamah leaves the body, the body remains a piece of nothing, like a doll; there's nothing there. The body is essentially subservient to the soul. Now, even though there's a great purpose in living in this world in a body, for if there wasn't, HaShem would not have created a world and would not have put us in the world, nevertheless, it is clear that the soul is in a sense confined within the body. There is a certain restraint that the Neshamah must undergo because it is in a body. If the Neshamah was not in a body it wouldn't have to stop serving HaShem in order to eat and sleep and wash the dishes. Let's say the person has a tremendous longing for Yiddishkeit. Let's talk about a tzaddik who's on a higher level than you and I. Even the tzaddik has to stop every so often because of his body. There are certain needs that the body has that put a damper on what the soul would want to do twenty-four hours a day. So the body, in a sense, prevents the soul from expressing itself fully, and from serving HaShem constantly. A person gets tired. A Neshamah doesn't get tired; a body gets tired. After a while you get bored. You lose your train of thought. You can't concentrate any more. You need to sleep, you need to rest, you need to have your coffee. We're just human beings. So the body slows the Neshamah down. That's clear.

However, when a person sleeps, a totally different thing happens. During the time of sleep, even though the person is obviously still alive, the heart still beats and the person still breathes, nevertheless, a segment of the Neshamah leaves the body during the time of sleep. That is why we have to wash negel-vasser when we wake up. We have to wash right, left, right, left, right, left, even if we slept only for one hour. Because during the time of sleep the part of the Neshamah that leaves the body is replaced by what's called a ruach hatumah, impurity. When the person wakes up again, this ruach hatumah remains on a person's fingers, according to the Shulchan Aruch. This is why we have to wash only the hands and not the whole body.

During sleep there is a loss of consciousness. One does not fully hear, nor speak, nor see. There is an idea of death, a whisper of death -- the Gemara calls sleep one sixtieth of death. Many people die in their sleep. Because during sleep everything slows down. The heart, the respiration, everything functions at a much slower pace than when the person is awake. During sleep the Neshamah that was inside the body rises to its source above.

Now you and I -- normal, ordinary people who are not tzaddikim, (maybe there are some tzaddikim in this room that I do not know about?) when we sleep, what normally happens is that we dream. But people that are on a level above ours, people who are really truly devoted to Yiddishkeit and to Torah, receive assistance from Above during sleep. According to Kabbalistic texts, one can receive a form of Divine Inspiration while asleep. There are numerous cases told about tzaddikim and great people that worked on themselves, so that if they were troubled by a certain dilemma during their day -- let's say they were involved in learning and there was a certain thing that they just couldn't figure out -- when they slept, this dilemma was resolved. HaShem gave them the answer during their dreams. I'm not talking about ordinary Jews who wake up in the morning and say, "Last night I had a dream." Most of our dreams are pure nonsense. There are people who see visions of tzaddikim or they receive teachings during their dreams.

I remember a story about a young woman who was at that point not even fully observant. I think today she is, but this was during her return to Yiddishkeit. She had studied dance. She was a professional dancer. She was gearing herself up for a career as a professional dancer on stage. She was really into it. This was her life, practicing and dancing and performing. She was in a car accident and her legs were very badly injured. After rehabilitation she was able to walk again, but the doctors told her she should forget about being a professional dancer because she would never be able to have that grace and that fineness of movement that she had before. She was totally devastated. This was her life. She had invested years and so much effort and money, and all these dreams were just dashed because of this accident. She went into a deep depression, because she didn't know what to do with her life. One night she went to sleep and had a dream. And in this dream she saw her grandfather who had passed away. Her grandfather had known from the time she was a little girl that she wanted to be a dancer. He asked why she was so sad and she said, "Because I wanted to be a dancer, and now I can't be a dancer and I don't know what to do with my life. I'm shattered, I'm broken." Her grandfather replied, "Why? Your training and experience don't have to go to waste. You can live your life like a dance. You can use all the wisdom of dancing to live."

When she woke up in the morning, she remembered the dream and started thinking about how choreography, the theory of dancing, organization and coordination and so on, working on your body and pushing yourself to your limit, could really be applied to life. She decided then and there that she was going to start a new life, and try to live with her grandfather's advice. Eventually she became a baalas teshuvah. It was just amazing how this insight came during her dream. Dreams can be Divine Inspiration even for us.

At any rate, we see that during the time when the person seems to be unconscious and not functioning, that is sometimes when a higher level of consciousness takes over.

During sleep, when the Neshamah is free of the body, it can in a sense go higher and reach revelations that cannot happen during the day, when a person is awake. The Rebbe explains that at Sinai, this was the intention of the Yidden in going to sleep. They knew that they had been working for seven weeks to elevate themselves to be ready to receive the Torah. But all of their preparations had been done, in a sense, during the day when they were awake and conscious. And they felt that now that they had reached such a high level, maybe now, if we go to sleep, our souls will reach such a high level that we can get the Torah while asleep. For we will be on a much higher level than we can attain through our own efforts. This was the true intention. They were hoping that through their sleep they would be able to reach a level of holiness that would be much greater than they could reach on their own accord during the day.

This is what the Midrash explains: Their sleep on Shavuos night was very sweet. Sleep can only be great and holy and special if you are on the level of Shavuos, if you have done all the necessary preparations. Then you can go to sleep with the hope that great things will happen, that you will see great revelations during your sleep.

"The night was short." Here "night" alludes to concealment. We know that darkness, night, hides things. Have you ever tried looking for your glasses in the middle of the night and then in the morning, there they are just by your night table, two inches away from your hand? At night you just grope and you can't find your slippers or anything. So what does the night do? The night doesn't change anything. It just hides things. You cannot see. In the day you see it all, it's so simple.

When a person is just beginning his first steps in Yiddishkeit, it seems like things are so complex, things are so hidden, so mysterious. You feel like you're groping in the dark. You're finding your way with a sense of touch. But as a person learns more, as a person does more mitzvos, as a person gets more habituated to live this way, as you develop more relationships with people that are spiritual guides, madrichim, all of a sudden you feel like you can find your way better. "I understand more. It seems clearer." And as the person grows in his Yiddishkeit and grows in his Torah knowledge, the night gets shorter. Things seem to be less concealed, and become more and more revealed.

The Yidden had reached a level where the concealment was minimal. They had almost overcome most of the night. There was still a bit of a night left but it was much shorter than it was when they started. So they felt, now we have done what we can do with daytime, let's see what sleeping can do for us.

HaShem, in recognition of their good intentions said, "You know what? They're really so sincere that I will help them along by preventing the mosquitoes from biting." Had HaShem been opposed to their sleeping He wouldn't have made this tremendous miracle that the mosquitoes which bit last night and the next night, all of a sudden this night didn't bite.

Why, then, do we recite the Tikkun year after year? Because HaShem says, "I know what your idea was, but you made a little mistake. That's all. It was an innocent error. I'm not punishing." We don't see that there was any punishment. If there was something bad, HaShem would have punished. We don't see in the Midrash or in the Torah that there was ever any reprimand or any punishment meted out to them. The only thing HaShem said is, "I want you to make a Tikkun. Don't do it again, and to remember that you shouldn't do it again, every year I want you to stay up."

What was their mistake? It was a very innocent error that many people still make today -- that the ultimate purpose is the spiritual world, rather than the physical world. HaShem, however, wanted a dwelling place in the lowest world, as the Midrash states. This is explained in Chassidus at great length. Actually, to make a dwelling place for HaShem in this world was not possible until we received the Torah, and HaShem annulled the decree separating spirituality and physicality, so that now even the physical can become spiritual through the service of Yidden. Thus, their error was entirely understandable, for it took place before the Torah was given.

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