For a seven day period you shall live in Sukkot (“booths”). Every resident among the Jews shall live in Sukkot. (Leviticus 23:42)
The Torah instructs us to live in a Sukkah for seven days. We eat, sleep, and relax there as we would in our own homes. It isn’t difficult for most people to build a Sukkah in their backyard, deck, patio or balcony but what happens in the case of a dormitory. Many students live there but they can’t build a Sukkah big enough to accommodate all of them to sleep. This doesn’t present a problem for eating because even though everyone can’t fit in the Sukkah at one time, they can take shifts when eating their meals but that isn’t practical for sleeping. Years ago in Jerusalem some creative Yeshiva students had an idea. The Yeshiva Sukkah wasn’t large enough to accommodate all of them for sleeping; a few students came up with an ingenious plan. They would wait for some of the students to fall asleep and then gently lift them with their cots from the Sukkah and replace them with others one so that different students would have the opportunity to sleep in the Sukkah. Practically speaking, if Jake went to sleep in the Sukkah, does Jeremy have the right to take him out so that Jeremy now has room to sleep in the Sukkah?
As bizarre as this suggestion sounds, it is permissible. Here’s the rationale: The obligation to sleep in a sukkah rests only on those who are awake and going to sleep. Once a person is already sleeping, he is unconscious and exempt from any further obligation in mitzvot until he wakes up. Therefore, if one were sleeping in the Sukkah, there would be no prohibition to remove him just as there would be no reason to wake up a person who is sleeping outside of a Sukkah. When someone sleeps, it is as though, in a sense, he does not exist. He can’t be counted for a minyan and he’s not even obligated in certain instances if he damages someone in his sleep. For example, if a person went to sleep next to a set of dishes and knocked them over in his sleep, he is obligated to pay the owner for the dishes because he knew then were there when he went to sleep but if the dishes were placed there after he went to sleep, he is exempted from paying.
A sleeping person is exempt from doing mitzvos but he also is missing out on enjoying life. We might love to sleep but most of us enjoy the pleasures of life more.
Sleep can be a mirage. The proof is that when you’re full of excitement and energy, you simply can’t sleep. Did you ever wake up at 4 a.m. to climb a mountain before sunrise? You weren’t sleepy; you were bubbling with excitement and anticipation-you were awake.
One feels like sleeping when life is boring and one of the obvious signs of depression is when one does a lot of sleeping. The Chofetz Chaim said that we can learn an important lesson about sleep from children. They hate to go to bed. From the moment they get up, they are up and look forward to that joie de vivre (delight in being alive) continuing; if they could, kids would stay up all night.
How does one return to his or her natural childhood state of loving life and hating to sleep? That involves something many people are uncomfortable doing. We need to focus on the deeper purpose and meaning of life. We need to look for fascinating, fulfilling activities. It is essential to create joy in living instead of just waiting for it to happen.
Why do adults often crave sleep? Responsibilities weigh us down. We want to crawl into bed and hide under the covers just to get a breather. At those moments, think: is it good to be alive? Am I trying to escape from the struggle of life? If being alive is good, then it stands to reason that too much sleep detaches me from that good.
The struggle against drowsiness and fatigue is the struggle for meaning. A person can go through an entire lifetime but tragically be unconscious to much of the beauty of the world s/he lives in.
In Judaism, our basic drive is to gain clarity. It takes focus to learn how to wake up to the purpose of your life. If one fails to do that, s/he ends up with the shock of a cold bath. Here’s one small example: when it comes to finding a job when you graduate college and find out that not everyone is breaking down the door to give you a job, a unpleasant reality hits you that while you were having fun or even studying, you lost the focus of what you wanted to do at the end of four years.
Emotionally healthy people want to reach their potential. They want to be good and make a contribution to humanity. For some it is medicine, for others teaching, for others raising a family, and for some people-all of the above. What are you going to do about getting what you want out of life? What are you doing to tackle the big issues and get real answers? Have you asked yourself, “what exactly am I living for and what do I want to do with the rest of my life?” What’s my long-range forecast; what do I want inscribed on my tombstone?
One of life’s gifts is an aha moment. We all have these moments of awareness when we hear something that makes sense. It is crack of light – an insight, a truth, a moment of recognition that life can be beautiful. There is incredible pleasure when the proverbial light bulb goes on, yet at the same time there should be recognition that you have been asleep until now (as far as that idea is concerned). We live for those feelings of waking up because they are the clarity we need to give direction to our lives.
However, we can have such moments of clarity… and then fall asleep again. You may finish reading this, feel inspired but then “fall asleep.” When you gain a moment of clarity, immediately make a decision. Decide that you can change, that things can be different. No matter how old you are, you can change. We all have the ability to find and confront truth and act on it. Whether or not we exercise that ability is one of life’s great battles and therefore the struggle of life is really the struggle to be awake.
May we have the guts, grit, and fortitude to stay awake and deal with the beautiful life that G-d has in store for us. We might not see it in the distant future but it is a fact that many people in worse conditions than ours managed to stay awake. They learned to smile because they understood the reality that to enjoy life one must learn to live it on life’s terms, not my terms.
(Sources: Rulings of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach in HaSukkah Hashalem 27; Halichos Shlomo, Tefilla, Miluim #12; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 55:6; Tosafos Bava Kama 27b s.v. Ushmue; Rav Noach Weinberg, 48 Ways to Wisdom: #19)