Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
I’d always had a steady relationship with my insomnia and had come to appreciate its predictable nature. Until a few weeks ago, when everything changed.
I’m a night owl—have been since my teenage years—and I usually go to bed between midnight and one a.m., unless I can’t settle down and wind up staying up all night. When I pull an all-nighter, whether I’m productive or unproductive, I do not drift asleep in the hour before dawn. I maintain a lucidity of thought through hours of sleeplessness until my alarm forces me off the couch to get ready for school.
Both the quantity and the quality of my insomnia shifted in 2018. I now find myself unable to stay awake past nine p.m. Lately, I neglect the tasks, such as grading papers, I usually perform after dinner, crawl into bed long before anyone else in the house does, and fall fast asleep. After 4-5 hours, having slept a typical amount for me, I’m wide awake again by 2 a.m., and by 3:30 I’m slipping in and out of dreams I can neither comprehend nor remember when I fully wake.
When I returned to school after the Rabbis Without Borders retreat and three consecutive nights of fitful dreams, my students, who had been studying Genesis 28 in my absence, were ready to review verses 10-22. For this chapter, We’ve been reading the translation in Professor Friedman’s The Bible with Sources Revealed and exploring Documentary Hypothesis. Many students easily identified how Jacob’s first encounter with God appears to be two different descriptions of two different dreams woven together into a single narrative. One part of the narration includes visual imagery—a ladder with angels—while the other is auditory, recounting God’s words to Jacob. Upon awakening, Jacob responds to each part of the dream in kind. First he creates a pillar and pours out oil, using tangible objects to worship God, and then he makes a vow, using his words to mirror God’s speech in the dream.
Thanks to my own insomnia-inspired dreams, I saw something in the text I’d never seen before and I posed a question to my similarly sleep-deprived students:
“Did you ever partially wake up from a dream and fall back asleep, and you’re still dreaming the same dream but it’s different?”
This leads to a discussion about their dreams, as well as the different descriptions of Jacob’s dream. I teach them the word “epiphany,” which they have not yet encountered on their vocabulary-building website. We discuss Jacob’s vow, which strikes most of the students not as an acceptance of but rather a challenge to God’s authority. We wonder what these different narrations might teach us about Jacob’s ability, or inability, to trust in God at this stage of his journey.
“This is our patriarch, the father of the Jewish people,” one student remarks. He’s not impressed with Jacob’s behavior toward his family or his relationship to God. I reply that we still haven’t learned about Jacob’s interactions with his Uncle Laban, his struggles in another dream and his reunion with his brother. We’ll have to keep reading to see whether Jacob will be transformed into the hero of our story before we arrive at spring break.
Some students have heard these stories before; now we are studying them in depth. We read through the lens of our own life experiences as we develop and apply critical thinking skills to the biblical text. Periodically I remind my students that I, too, read this text with different eyes every time I teach it.
This year, my eyesight is slightly unfocused from interrupted sleep and my mind is occasionally distracted by stray thoughts of half-remembered dreams. In the darkness, I pray to encounter God as Jacob did in his dreams. In the classroom, standing before my students with my well-worn copy of Friedman’s Commentary on the Torah, I believe my prayers are answered.