To Sleep or Not to Sleep

Chazal tell us that Rabi Akiva was giving a shiur, and the audience was dozing. Rabi Akiva sought to awaken them by asking, “Why did Esther merit to be queen over 127 countries?”

He answered: “Esther merited this because she was a descendant of Sarah Imeinu, who lived for 127 years.”

Many wonder about this statement. Why did Rabi Akiva seek to awaken them with this specific question? What is the connection between the length of Sarah Imeinu’s life and the number of countries in the empire over which Esther was queen?

Chazal teach us in connection with the first passuk in this week’s parashah that just as a twenty-year-old has not sinned since she is not yet liable to punishment biyedei Shamayim, so too when Sarah Imeinu was one hundred years old, she was without sin. And when she was twenty, she was like a seven-year-old in regard to yofi.

The Chasam Sofer explains that “yofi” refers to the good deeds she performed in her lifetime.

It seems unlikely, however, that the good deeds she performed earlier in her life should be identical to the deeds she performed in her later years, after she married Avraham Avinu.

One explanation is based on a passuk in the perek of Mishlei that is known as Eishes Chayil, and is recited in many communities on Friday night.

“She rises when it is still night; she gives food to her household and rations to her maidens (naaroseha).” Chazal teach that this refers to Sarah Imeinu.

At first glance, the passuk seems repetitive. Once we are told that this woman of valor rises early to give food to her household, doesn’t that include rations for her maidens?

The Chasam Sofer explains homiletically that the word naaroseha, which is translated as “maidens,” refers to Sarah’s younger years (ne’uroseha). By arising when it was still night and giving up on her sleep, she gave “rations for her younger years” — meaning that she was able to compensate for what she was missing in the early part of her life, until all her 127 years were equal in their beautiful good deeds.

Accordingly, Rabi Akiva admonished his audience for the fact that not only were they not using the nighttime hours for learning Torah, but they were dozing off during the daytime, when they certainly should have been listening to a Torah lecture.

It is said that early one morning the Chazon Ish, zy”a, was found sleeping on the floor near his bed. When he awoke, he was asked what had occurred.

“It is my custom,” the Chazon Ish replied, “to learn Torah every night at the shtender next to the table. I learn until I feel that my eyes are closing from tiredness of their own accord. At this point, I make a quick calculation of how much more time it will take until I fall asleep. I know from past experience that the time it takes me to get from the shtender to the bed is about one minute. Therefore, I learn until one minute before sleep overtakes me, and then I go to my bed and fall asleep.

“This time,” the Chazon Ish concluded with a smile, “it appears that I miscalculated; I did not make it to my bed but fell asleep along the way…”

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The Bluzhever Rebbe, Harav Yisrael Spira, zy”a, gave an alternative explanation for the Midrash linking Sarah and Esther. He too wondered about the 127 years of Sarah Imeinu’s life being equal: after all, she had spent part of that time sleeping. So why did Esther merit to rule over 127 countries? Would it not have made sense to deduct the percentage of time that Sarah Imeinu had spent sleeping?

But this only comes to prove that an appropriate amount of sleep is also part of avodas Hashem, and all the hours Sarah Imeinu spent sleeping were therefore rightfully included in the 127 years — granting her descendant dominion over 127 countries.

Rabi Akiva saw that his audience was dozing and assumed that it was because they were denying themselves enough sleep. He therefore taught them that sleep can also be part of avodas Hashem, and that they should get real sleep rather than dozing, which does nothing for a person.

* * *

The concepts behind these two explanations do not contradict each other.

Sleeping excessively is a disturbing sign of boredom and lack of enthusiasm for life. Someone who tries to do what is right and whose day is filled with significant activity finds life far too meaningful to sleep away the hours.

But at the same time, too little sleep can be very destructive. The exact number of hours needed varies from person to person, but as Harav Avigdor Miller, zt”l, and many others pointed out, a long list of ailments — including anxiety and depression — can often be attributed to lack of sleep. The Ribbono Shel Olam created us with a need to sleep, and a restful night in bed rejuvenates a person and makes it possible for him to use his waking hours for avodas Hashem.

By getting enough sleep, we ensure that this too is part of our avodas Hashem.