SLEEP’S DARK & SILENT GATE: THE DAILY THRESHOLD BETWEEN DEATH AND RESURRECTION

בְּיָדוֹ אַפְקִיד רוּחִי, בְּעֵת אִישַׁן וְאָעִֽירָה
.וְעִם רוּחִי גְּוִיָּתִי, ה’ לִי וְלֹא אִירָא

Into Your Hand I entrust my spirit
When I wake and when I sleep;
And should my soul depart my body,
God is with me, I shall not fear.

To Sleep

By John Keats

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
      Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,
      Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close
      In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes,
Or wait the “Amen,” ere thy poppy throws
      Around my bed its lulling charities.
Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes,—
      Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
      Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.

      As a child I was afraid to go to sleep. The feeling of isolation from the conscious world scared me.  Going to sleep was like being transported to a ghost town in the Old West hundreds of miles from the nearest living soul. Even in a room with others, falling asleep was something that, by definition, one had to do by oneself.

     Some kids need a night light as an insurance policy against the bogeyman; my salvation came from sleeping with the radio on. Because I grew up in the New York metropolitan area, at night I listened to WINS, a 24-hour news station at 1010 on the AM dial.  As a result, imprinted somewhere deep in my brain are the words, “1010 WINS, All News, All the Time.  You give us 22 minutes and we’ll give you the world.” The sound of a live voice, not a recorded one, reassured me that in a sleeping world someone, somewhere was still awake.  In fact, to this day if I wake up in the middle of the night and hear the sound of a distant train whistle blowing in the stillness of the night, I find it a comforting sound, a reminder that even in my state of oblivion the world continues to exist and life goes on.

     I later realized that what really scared me as a child wasn’t falling asleep, but dying.  The nexus between sleep and death is clear.  The Babylonian Talmud teaches that sleep is equal to 1/60 of death (Berakhot 57b). It’s no surprise, then, that the bedtime liturgy of Judaism asks God to “give light to my eyes lest I fall into the sleep of death.”  That the classic formulation of this liturgy includes a kind of confessional recited before sleep and that Jewish tradition contains another form of confession to be recited on one’s deathbed is hardly accidental, either.  On a certain existential — if not biological — level, the difference between sleep and death is only the permanence of the latter.

     But if I am prepared to accept my nightly death, it’s no stretch to say that each morning I experience tehiat hametim, the Hebrew term for resurrection of the dead.  Upon arising I wash my hands — just as I would after leaving a cemetery — and I give thanks to a God “Who returns souls to dead bodies.”  There is a delicious irony in that while I have my doubts about the doctrine of resurrection, I would be the first to admit that I am its daily beneficiary. In fact, by my calculation, I’ve already experienced tehiat hametim well over 200,000 times!

     The chasm between sleep and wakefulness, death and resurrection, the darkness of night and the light of day could not be greater.  Darkness symbolizes isolation and aloneness, while life’s fellowship conducts its business in the daylight.  It is telling that, according to the Talmud, the earliest time one can recite the morning Sh’ma is when a person can recognize an acquaintance at a distance of four cubits  (Berakhot 9b) — for it’s only when we’re able to identify others that we may truly say the darkness of isolation has lifted.

      Yet in reality death and resurrection are inseparable dance partners.  Married to one another, each is vital to the mystery and wonder that make life so precious and finite.  Our liturgy has always understood this because it frames the respective blessings with which we rise and sleep in parallel language.  In the morning we thank God “Who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids,” while at night we pray for God “to cast the bonds of sleep upon my eyes and slumber upon my eyelids.”  In the morning, liturgical gratitude to God for wakefulness begins in the singular, but ends in the plural.  So, too, in the evening we begin by speaking of our fears of the night in the singular, yet conclude with the words, “Praised are You . . .  the Holy One who illuminates the world in its entirety with God’s glory.” Lifeless corpses awaken each morning, God’s supernal light pierces the darkness of death each night; aloneness leads to presence in the plural . . . and then back again.

     A few weeks ago I re-read Henry Roth’s  amazing 1934 novel, Call it Sleep.  Written in a stream of consciousness, it’s the story of Davey Schearl, a young immigrant boy whose intense isolation is palpable throughout the book.  In the end, after electrocuting himself on the 3rd rail of a street car on the Lower East Side in an attempt to re-enact Isaiah’s theophany in which an angel touches the prophet’s lips with a burning coal, Davey hovers between death and resurrected life, aloneness and connection, sleep and awareness, only to realize at a deep level these qualities are not contradictory, but complementary, that God who causes us to sleep, awakens us from slumber.  And so Roth ends his novel:

He might as well call it sleep.  It was only towards sleep that every wink of the eyelids could strike a spark into the cloudy tinder of the dark, kindle out of shadowy corners of the bedroom such myriad and such vivid jets of images . . . . It was only toward sleep that ears had power to cull again and reassemble . . . the roar of crowds and all sounds that lay fermenting in the vats of silence and the past . . . and feel them all and feel, not pain, not terror, but strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence.  One might as well call it sleep. He shut his eyes.

     Having turned 50 just a few months ago, I feel like I’ve reached a “second naivete” at this stage of my life.  In other words,  I am simultaneously surprised by very little . . . and by almost everything.  So, when I am resurrected on that final morning of my life and then die for the last time, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if the first words I heard in Heaven were “1010 WINS, All News, All the Time.  You give us a lifetime and we’ll give you the world-to-come.”  One might as well call it sleep, indeed.

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