The New Year is in the doorway.
The well known Piyyut for the month of Selichot and the High Holidays begins with the words Ben Adam Mah Lekha Nirdam “Hey, why are you sleeping?”
These words from the book of Jonah (1:6) and are spoken to Jonah by the Ship’s Captain. Jonah, in the depth of his depression and his desire to flee from fate and the voice of God, has gone down to the deepest hold of the ship and fallen fast asleep. He is completely unaware of the great storm that threatens to sink the ship with all its passengers.
The Captain embodies responsibility. Maybe this is really the voice of the responsible aspect of his own soul that is speaking to the somnolent Jonah: This is not the time to sleep! Why are you sleeping? Are you crazy? You need to wake up and do something!
These are reminiscent of the words Maimonides chose to describe the meaning of the Shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah (MT, Laws of Repentance, 3:4) “Even though the blowing of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a Biblical decree, it hints at something, i.e., ‘Awaken, sleepers, from your sleep! You who slumber, arise! Search your ways and return in teshuvah and remember your Creator! Those who forget the Truth amidst the futility of the moment and are infatuated all their years with vanity and nothingness that will not help and will not save, examine your souls and improve your ways and your motivations! Let each of you abandon his wicked ways, and his thoughts which are no good.'”
This is religious language, and it speaks with a tone of certainty and rebuke that some of us may find off-putting. But let’s try to bend our ear, to understand the meaning, and to clarify for ourselves: what is this great invitation? To awaken and arise and look around, to see the mistakes and the folly of our lives, and to recognize them. To return our lives to God or to divinity or to Holiness, however we define it.
Everything depends on awakening. But what is awakening and what is worth waking up for? We each need to discover our own answers to this tremendous mystery, this mysterious question.
The Zohar, the masterpiece of medieval Jewish mysticism, deals intensively with the question of awakening. It encourages us, in ways that are hidden and visible, subtle and obvious, to wake up.
But what does The Zohar mean by awakening?
First of all, awakening means rising out of our somnolent consciousness and awakening to the riddle of our identity, of the destiny and meaning of our existence in this world. Sometimes, awareness of the fact that our consciousness is asleep, that it’s possible to awaken, comes as a shock. Sometimes it comes as a gentle lifting of a veil from our eyes. Awakening is also the awakening of curiosity, because in human language, we say we become aware of something because something has caused us to wake up.
Awakening is also connected to the quickening of the senses and the emotions connected to love and Eros, like in the verse “under the apple tree I aroused you” that is spoken by the lover in the Song of Songs. Awakening, according to The Zohar, is a return to our proper condition as humans, created in the image of God and placed in charge of reality to improve it. Awakening, our renewed consciousness of our true nature comes and asks, even demands, that we work to heal the world on all its levels, the individual, the interpersonal, the social and the national, even the cosmic.
So why aren’t we awake? Maybe because we are creatures who need the cycle of sleep and awakening, maybe because we have a tendency to fall asleep in any condition, even when we have already found something that will keep us awake and alert? Maybe because sleep is comfortable? Maybe because we don’t realize that we’re sleeping? Maybe because we are too afraid to awaken?
Sit with yourself and with your friends and consider: when and why do you sleep? When have you recently felt most awake and alive?
Awaken sleepers, you slumberers who sleep in their holes and don’t know and don’t look and don’t see. … Look to Knowledge and discover for yourselves the Light of Enlightenment! (Zohar, Matnitin, part 1, 141b).
Translated into English by Rabbi Simcha Daniel Burstyn