The Role of Sleep in Spiritual Growth by Mr. Chanan Strassman


Parashat VaYeitzei opens with a description of Yaakov’s flight from home. While en route to Charan, “VaYifga BaMakom VaYalen Sham Ki Va HaShemesh, VaYikach MeiAvnei HaMakom VaYasem MeRa’ashotav VaYishkav BaMakom HaHu,” “[Yaakov] encountered the place and he slept there, for the sun had set, and he took from the stones of that place and put them around his head, and he lay down in that place” (BeReishit 28:11). Rashi comments on the seemingly redundant clause that Yaakov Avinu “lay down in that place.” Since we already established that he is going to sleep, what does this superfluous detail add to our understanding of the story? Apparently, Yaakov’s actions in that place are noteworthy because they deviate from his earlier behavior in a different place. According to the Midrash, Yaakov spent fourteen years immersed in Torah study at the Yeshiva of Sheim and Eiver, and his learning was so intense that he did not sleep at night. Now, as the sun sets, Yaakov finally decides to lay down for a rest.

          It is tempting to marvel at Yaakov Avinu’s high spiritual level, as demonstrated by his ability to actively learn Torah for fourteen years without ever needing a break for sleep. Any serious Talmid Chacham would certainly aspire to reach such lofty heights, both in terms of scholarship and stamina. In fact, some opinions maintain that Yaakov is the prime example of one who acquires Torah by following the Mishnah’s recommendation of “Mi’ut Sheinah,” “limitation of sleep” (Pirkei Avot 6:6). Rashi (BeReishit 28:11 s.v. VaYishkav BaMakom HaHu) appears to agree with this idea, as he opens his thought about Yaakov’s untiring study habits with an introductory remark that employs the Mishnah’s diction, “Lashon Mi’ut,” “a language of exclusion,” or “an expression of limitation.” On a simple level, Rashi understands that the Torah is hinting to Yaakov’s limited sleep schedule. Yet, one could argue that Rashi’s “Lashon Mi’ut” might also apply to Yaakov in a broader context.

It is rather striking to observe that up until this moment, the Torah provides no indication that Yaakov directly experiences any sort of divine instruction or acknowledgement from Hashem. Even though Yaakov demonstrated an ironclad devotion to Torah study as a fixture in the world’s premiere Yeshiva, God never spoke to him in all that time. What was missing? Is it possible that, in the midst of such incredible academic accomplishment, Yaakov Avinu was lacking in some fundamental area?

In light of this, one can appreciate another interpretation of “Lashon Mi’ut” as applied to Yaakov. It could be that Rashi’s formulation of this Midrash as a “language of exclusion” actually points toward the reason for Yaakov’s limited Ru’ach HaKodesh: Maybe he was not getting enough sleep. It is all too easy to imagine Yaakov as an all-star Tzaddik who possessed capabilities beyond our own, so his practice of learning without sleep is not typically construed as a spiritual handicap. Perhaps, though, there is a purposeful correlation between the limited quality of Yaakov’s sleep and his limited connection with Hashem. This notion is especially compelling when one considers that Yaakov’s first direct communication with God occurs after he finally settles down for a good night’s rest. Furthermore, upon waking from his slumber, Yaakov immediately proclaims a heightened awareness of God’s presence and a newfound appreciation for the significance of his surroundings. Clearly, the restorative benefits of sleep make an impact on Yaakov’s spiritual functioning.

There is even room to suggest that Hashem may actively steer Yaakov in the direction of sleep. For instance, Rashi (ibid. s.v. Ki Va) notes that Hashem causes the sun to set earlier than usual in order that Yaakov should lie down for the night at Har HaMoriyah. Rashi could have explained the hastened journey in a different way, by saying that Hashem causes the earth to contract to shorten the distance Yaakov needs to travel to Har HaMoriyah. In fact, Rashi offers this exact explanation when Eliezer travels to his encounter with Rivkah at the well. Why does God not follow His own precedent and hasten Yaakov’s journey by contracting the earth? Would Yaakov Avinu not have arrived at the mountain in less time? A possible answer to this question is that Yaakov’s trip would have been quicker, but he would have arrived during the daytime. Such a scenario would not be problematic if God wished to speak with Yaakov while he was awake. However, Chizkuni believes that Yaakov had no intention whatsoever of stopping to rest while fleeing for his life. He only lies down “BeAl Korcho,” “against his will,” when there is no light left and it is impossible to travel. Thus, it seems that Hashem specifically sets the stage for Yaakov to fall asleep, and in so doing, facilitates Yaakov’s continued spiritual development.

While it is beyond our capacity to know Hashem’s true intention in orchestrating Yaakov’s bedtime, there is ample evidence to suggest that improving one’s sleep habits can yield spiritual benefits. Not only does modern research show the negative impact of sleep deprivation on learning and cognitive function in general, but many studies indicate that the inverse is true as well: Sleep is a critical component in memory formation and retention, and it is even a significant factor in increasing one’s achievement of learning goals during stressful periods of time. Whereas the initial acquisition of Torah must come through wakeful focus during study, as the Mishnah advises, the challenge of internalizing and retaining the Torah we learn may indeed require a proper night’s sleep.

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