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
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
"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.