Yom Kippur Survival Kit
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Yom Kippur Survival Kit

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. You can reach him at edmojace@gmail.com.

LOS ANGELES – You didn’t let Maimonides catch you napping on Rosh Hashanah, did you?

His famous quote, “Awake, awake, you slumberers from your sleep, inspect your actions and return” – usually found in the High Holy Days 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 the much longer services this Yom Kippur you should “accidentally” hit the snooze button and head off into the realm of somnambulant psalms?

Some of us seem to become drowsy the second we set foot in a synagogue. 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 … and 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 emphasized even in the liturgy: On every morning of the year, we are supposed to thank God for removing “sleep from our eyes, slumber from our eyelids,” as well as “restoring vigor to the weary.”

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 Holy Days 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 Holy Days, Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., 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.

“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 pointing out 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.

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 the shofar was sounded. 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?

The shofar will sound one more time at the close of Yom Kippur. What state will we be in then?

JTA Wire Services

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