Sleep is essential to life – quite simply, we cannot live without it. Paradoxically, ‘lying down’ (for sleep) is often used, metaphorically, of death – as in the case of King David: ‘Then David lay down [Va-yishkav David] with his ancestors and was buried in the city of David’ (I Kings 2:10).
There are two very different expressions for ‘sleep’ in the TaNaKh, the Hebrew Bible. While the Hebrew root, Yud SHin Nun, denotes, ordinary ‘sleep’, another, Reish Dalet Mem, is used to describe ‘deep sleep’. But it’s not just a question of whether one, simply, ‘sleeps’, or ‘sleeps deeply’. After the autumn festival period concludes, we will begin reading the Torah again – going back to Genesis. A key verse in the second account of the creation of humanity points to a transformative element implicit in ‘deep sleep’. We read: ‘So the Eternal God caused a deep sleep [taRDeiMah] to fall upon the human being [ha-Adam]; and while ‘he’ slept [Va-yYiSHaN], God took one of ‘his’ sides, and then closed up the flesh in its place. / Then the Eternal God built the side taken from the human being into a woman …’ (Genesis 2:21-2). Often read as the ‘rib’ to ‘woman’ story because the gendered language assigns a masculine gender to ha-Adam, the plain meaning of the text is that while in a state of ‘deep sleep’, the singular human being was split in two. The technical expression, metamorphosis, is used to describe the process by which some animals physically change their body structure after birth. The Genesis text also seems to be describing a process of metamorphosis.
So: taRDeiMah; the deep sleep of transformation. And also the sleep of avoidance and denial: In flight from his prophetic mission to warn the city of Nineveh of its impending destruction, Jonah boarded a ship bound for Tarshish (1:1-3). When the Eternal sent a great storm, Jonah went down into the hold and fell into a deep sleep – va-yeiRaDaM (1:4-5). We read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon to remind ourselves that God forgives those who repent – even, as with the Ninevites, those who commit the most terrible deeds. There is also another message: We have to wake up to the challenges before us – and not try to escape them by running away or taking refuge in sleep. As Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1204) put it, on Rosh Ha-Shanah the voice of the shofar proclaims: ‘Awake, you sleepers, from your sleep! [Root: Yud SHin Nun] Arouse yourselves, you slumberers, from your deep slumber! [Root: Reish Dalet Mem] Examine your deeds, and turn in repentance’ (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot T’shuvah 3:4). To paraphrase Ecclesiastes: There is a time to wake, and a time to sleep. The Yamim Nora’im, Days of Awe, call us to wake up and renew our lives. The time for sleep will arrive when winter comes. Shanah Tovah! Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah