I must be overtired’, Buttercup managed. ‘The excitement and all.’
‘Rest then’, her mother cautioned. ‘Terrible things can happen when you’re overtired. I was overtired the night your father proposed’. William Goldman
It seems everybody’s tired these days; we seem to be suffering from global exhaustion – and it’s across the board from young adults to senior citizens! Most of us aren’t getting enough sleep and that’s a problem. Sleep deprivation leads to bad health, lack of sleep affects our physical and emotional well-being. When you’re tired, you get short-tempered and make poor decisions…
Tiredness has been called the last taboo and although it’s probably not the final taboo it is something we need to talk about! In fact, so concerned was our Australian parliament that led by the Minister for Health (The Hon Greg Hunt)) it set up an Inquiry into Sleep Health Awareness in September 2018. One of the reasons for this is the billions of dollars that are calculated to be lost as a result of our inadequate sleep.
Our contemporary exhaustion epidemic is closely connected to our social media age and the social stresses of our consumer culture. Dr Nick Read, author of ‘Sick and Tired’, suggests that “functional illnesses” such as constant tiredness, the inability to sleep and excessive anxiety are caused by our failure to adapt to social change. We travel to the other side of the world in a day, we communicate instantaneously, the pace of life is relentless and unforgiving…
Furthermore, modern technology may inform and educate us but it also means we’re constantly exposed to and threatened by global catastrophe, global change and terrorist attacks. Just think about the events of the past week: A terror attack in the heart of Melbourne (as we hear about three alleged jihadists charged with planning another attack in our CBD), the worst fires on record in California, more than 460 rockets fired at Israel from Gaza. There’s plenty enough to give us sleepless nights… and of course there’s always a Netflix series or the ping of another incoming message to keep us awake.
I got to thinking about weariness, not just because I was too tired to think about anything else, but because in last week’s parasha is probably the first reference to an individual feeling fatigued:
“And Esau said to Jacob: Pour for me some of this red, red, stew for I am tired” (Gen: 25-30)
This week’s parasha (Vayetze) opens with a sleep sequence: Jacob’s great dream of an angelic ladder. Our rabbis calculate that this was the first good night’s sleep he had in fourteen years! Now he was one serious-serial-sleep deprived individual!
Esau’s over-tiredness was due to his life as a hunter, but also possibly (as intimated in the text) a result of his dissolute lifestyle. He felt drained and made bad decisions because he was so focused on the now, instant gratification, immediate satisfaction. He wanted to eat and he wanted to eat now; he didn’t care to delay his gratification for a future spiritual promise and illusory birthright. His philosophy was Epicurean and in many ways so contemporary: Death is always around the corner and especially if you live in a dangerous world, so why wait when you can indulge and enjoy right away? Hence his words: “Look I am going to die, so what use to me is a birthright”. (Ibid 25:32)
Jacob is also tired but from over-study; he stays up late at night to learn Torah. He may be weary but he is clear and focused on the future, he takes the long view. He puts principle before pleasure, he is representative of Judaism’s long-term gaze.
In an age of 24/7 it’s a reminder of where we place our priorities and that the tiredness that comes from staying up late to improve yourself, look after your baby, help another, or complete a meaningful project is ultimately a deeply satisfying weariness. The fatigue that comes from trying to keep up with others, escape anxiety or check your e-mails is ultimately debilitating.
Our relentless, competitive, sleepless society makes talking about tiredness difficult. After all, if everyone’s tired what make you so special? Yet we need to talk about slowing down, knowing our limits, leaving time for our closest relationships, taking control. Historian Richard Hudson points out that modern life is exhausting because we often feel compelled to live by its standards, even though we have a choice to live otherwise. His insight has long been recognised and promoted by the Torah and Jewish wisdom: we have a choice – we can decide how to use our precious time. It’s encapsulated in the phrase “choose life”, it’s embodied in the observance of Shabbat, it’s energised by taking time every day to learn and pray. Tefillah stops you in your tracks no matter how busy you are – and that’s also why we should have an embargo on mobile phones in our shules at ALL times and not just Shabbat and Yom Tov. Irritated as I may be by having to stop my work or movie to daven, it makes me pause and reflect. And, of course, the idea behind learning even a little Torah every day is the reminder to abandon the ‘life of the moment’ for ‘the life of meaning’ (called in Jewish literature – חיי שעה and חיי עולם)
In this sense Judaism is both counter-cultural and counter-consumerism. Freud highlighted for us that civilisation is measured by its capacity to delay gratification. Jacob our quintessential patriarch knew all about delayed pleasures (all those years of waiting for his beloved, working for his independence). The angels on his fantastical ladder may have suffered from ADHD, but he remained focused on tomorrow, striving for the stars, overcoming exhaustion and discovering elation…