(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...mi'ut sheina, minimizing sleep*...
(Exodus 19:18) ...vaya'al ashano k'eshen hakiv'shan... [Mt. Sinai's] smoke rose like smoke from a furnace...
Putting together this particular lesson was no easy task. There is no mention of sleep in this Torah portion, except by eliminating the spaces between the words (as the scroll was originally written). By combining k'eshen hakiv'shan the sequence of –shen and ha- create sheina, sleep.
Too cute a trick? Consider this story, long a legend at the Jewish Theological Seminary, but reported by someone who witnessed it, Rabbi Morris Gordon:
"Professor Alexander Marx knew every detail of Jewish history. As his students, we were awed by his knowledge, but often found it painfully difficult to stay focused, or even awake, during his monotonous, longwinded presentations that included minute particulars that were quite tedious to follow.
"When he lectured, he rarely looked up from his pages of notes, making it even more tempting to doze off during long classes. The professor was also known to doze off himself during a long, tedious student presentation."
One day, during a lengthy presentation [on early Hellenism], a fellow student of Rabbi Gordon noticed Professor Marx nodding off. To gain his attention, he called out loudly, "This era of ALEXANDER MARKS a great turning point in Jewish history."
"We all roared with laughter, but Marx took it seriously. He stood up and looked at us all quite proudly. He bowed. We could see he was delighted."
Professor Marx, a great scholar, was flattered to hear his name called in a scholarly discourse (even if it wasn't really called at all). He was awakened from his sleep by his perception that he was being called to greatness.
Am I overstating the lesson of this little silly anecdote? Maybe not. Midrash (Pirke d'Rabbi Eliezer) tells us that the smoking furnace, thunder and lightning atop Sinai on the day of revelation stirred the sleeping Israelites at dawn. Though they knew from Moses that God was to appear that day, they slept until Moses called to them as if they were the bride about to be brought to the wedding canopy. They were awakened from their sleep by the perception that they were being called to greatness. (And, with all respect to Professor Marx, they actually were!)
Sleep was a different commodity in rabbinic times than it is now. When darkness fell, people went to bed unless they had the wealth to afford oil lamps and candles in abundance. The afternoon often brought time for a "siesta" in the heat of the sun – a custom still observed in many cultures. It is easy to see how the Sages would urge people to do with less sleep to make more room for Torah study.
Ironically, we live at a time in which we have pushed back the darkness and made sleep an inconvenience. Doctors and researchers tell us we need more sleep, not less. In fact, in order to process what we have learned in the course of a day, the brain needs to sift and organize with the distraction of additional external stimulation. In such a society, can we really learn Torah by minimizing sleep?
I think the answer is clearly yes. Minimizing sleep does not necessarily mean reducing the hours we spend unconscious. It also means reducing the hours we spend not conscious. If sleep is that time when external stimuli do not penetrate our consciousness, then when we limit our awareness of the world around us, it is as if we are asleep.
We have a talent for fooling ourselves into a false consciousness. I am as guilty as the next guy of plopping down in front of the television on the pretense of being informed as I am being entertained. But the fact is our brains stop functioning productively when we zone out in front of a TV screen or computer monitor.
I will also admit to an, uh, occasional lack of engagement with worship and, especially, the public reading of the Torah. My eyes may appear open, but my attention is in an energy-saving mode. (I have yet to fall asleep during a sermon, but I am sure it is only because I am the one doing the talking.)
When we are fully awake to the potential of a moment, the wisdom of Torah's application is appreciable. When our minds are less than totally consciousness, then Sinai's words evaporate like smoke.
Here's an example of awakening to a text. The image of the fiery furnace spewing smoke has been associated for centuries with Sinai. Reading it closely to find the word "sleep" in it forced me to reflect on the image during the very week we commemorated the liberation of Auschwitz. It is not just the revelation of Torah to which the smoke awakens us, but the realization of evil as well. Only my broken sleep (-shen and ha-) allowed me to be conscious of the power of both moments.
How can mi'ut sheina help your acquire Torah? Turn off the television and pick up a sacred text. Our new Etz Hayim is a magnificent rendition of the Torah. Agnon's book Present at Sinai brings each of us back to that original moment, while feminist Judith Plaskow's Standing Again at Sinai asks us to reimagine the experience. And watch for the brand new translation by Rabbi Gordon Tucker of Abraham Joshua Heschel's Torah Min ha-Shamayim (called Heavenly Torah).
*Six values in a row include the word mi'ut, meaning, "minimizing." It is worth a moment to speak of asceticism and its place in our lives.
We live in a consumer society. While many people have become expert in exercising self-control over larger or smaller parts of their lives, our restraint is reactive rather than proactive. A dieter responds to excess weight; a person quits smoking in spite of a nicotine dependency; a family reduces expenses because the household budget must be reduced. While the conspicuous consumption of American society may be good reason to examine our self-indulgence, these six values reflect a stream of thought inherent in Judaism that is more Eastern than Western in orientation: acquisitiveness is the enemy of inquisitiveness. An emphasis on things and pleasure interferes with matters of the spirit and enlightenment.
That message is unpopular among the economically comfortable American population. And it is not my goal to upend the benefits of relative affluence by suggesting that your gym membership or subscription to HBO stands between you Torah. (I have both.) But mi'ut is not a limited tactic; it is a way of thinking and a way of living. In kabbalistic terms, I might compare it to tzimtzum, conscious self- contraction, the way in which God made room in this world for something other than God's own Self. The process is global, not local.
Please consider this context in reflecting on this reading.