How tired are you? Well if you look at the stats more than half of us are tired most of the time and the rest of us are just worn out, burnt out, fatigued and fed up. Not just parents with young kids and they’ve just identified a new condition called parental burn-out exhaustion.
We’re all running ragged and so many of us just can’t switch off and relax… We’re working crazy hours in a 24/7 society and even when taking time-out there’s a constant stream of emails and Netflix, text messages, that relentless ping for our attention.
There’s an epidemic of insomnia and sleep deprivation. Our own Parliament set up an enquiry a year ago into Sleep Health Awareness because billions of dollars are being lost from inadequate sleep.
Exhaustion is simply bad for us – it affects our physical health and emotional wellbeing, as well as our capacity for sound decision-making. It’s killing us but we don’t talk about it most of the time because it seems “wussy”, a source of shame, often for fear of losing our edge or our job. It’s been called the last taboo. Dr Nick Read wrote a great book about it called ‘Sick & Tired (of being Sick & Tired’). And he puts the blame on our consumer culture and our social media age.
In N.Y, the so-called WeWork headquarters have got neon signs telling you to “Hustle harder” and the murals on the wall cry out T.G.I.M (Thank God It’s Monday). It’s all about “rise and grind” and “Don’t stop when you’re tired – stop when you’re done”. Performative workaholism is the millennial mantra. Elon Musk boasts that nobody changed the world in 40 hours a week. The correct number, he says, is about 80 sustained and peaking at about 100…
As a formally unrepentant workaholic, I’ve now got an admission to make to my family that they were right. It’s not heroic to live on 5-6 hours sleep. In this season of confession, I must say.חטאתי For the sin of not sleeping enough; for the error of courting fatigue. Tiredness not only kills us physically but is also at the heart of our spiritual malaise. How can you face a fresh new year if you’re feeling burn-out and jaded? How can you get high on the High Holidays if you’re feeling so low, so depleted? How can you take time out and celebrate on Sukkot and Simchat Torah if you’re under the pump?
And I’m confessing today, not just because all the studies and stats are telling us that the more rest you get, the more years you add to your life, but also because I now think it’s a mitzvah to have a good shloof and not only on a Shabbos afternoon.
This hasn’t come easy – after all I’m a shtikel Litvak and had it drummed into me at yeshiva, that to sleep is to waste time ;you should be learning Torah. And the Vilna Gaon, hero of Lithuanian Jewry got by on just 2 hours a night and a couple of power-naps. My hero, Rambam, Maimonides, tells of his punishing work schedule and how he didn’t get a chance to sleep for more than a few hours and an occasional cat -nap. But now I know better. The Gaon was either an angel or an insomniac and probably both . The Rambam didn’t have a choice and anyway both these individuals were one of a kind, one of a generation – sui generis.
I’ve got a sound source to back me up: The very first reference in the Torah to someone being sick and tired isn’t Abraham or Moses but the cunning and devious hunter, Esau. Coming in from the chase, a hectic day in his office, he is weary to the bone.
ויבא עשו מן השדה והוא עיף (Esau came in from the field and he was bushed – Genesis 25:29)
And he turns to his Master-Chef twin brother, Jacob, who has been cooking up a storm called ‘Lentil as Anything” and shouts out: “Give me some of that red stuff, feed me, pour it down my throat because I’m finished, depleted and exhausted”. כי עיף אנכי (Ibid:30) He wanted to eat without delay so he sells his birthright, his future for a pot of soup saying – I’m literally dead tired הנה אנכי הולך למות (Ibid:32) or about to die, what do I care about a birthright?
Esau’s over-tiredness was due to his life as a hunter, but also possibly as 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). His behaviour is symptomatic of our fatigued and consumer-driven society: we are how we feel and what we consume. And as Freud reminded us civilisation is determined by delayed gratification ..
Jacob, by contrast, is consumed by a dream and a vision. According to the Midrash he’s also tired but he’s worn-out because he’s been over-studying, sitting in the tents late into the night to learn Torah. 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, mind before might ,how before now – 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, the 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. As Markus Zusak puts it those are moments of “perfect tiredness”. The fatigue the ayef anochi that comes from trying to keep up with others, escape anxiety, check your e-mails or watch another episode of Shtisel or Stranger Things, 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. Hudson points out modern life is exhausting because we often feel compelled to live by its standards, even though we have a choice to live otherwise. This 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 pray.
And yes, this difficult thing called Tefillah or prayer is good for your heart. It enhances and is in turn improved by meditation and yoga. Tefillah stops you in your tracks, no matter how busy you are- it makes you pause – and that’s also why we should have an embargo on mobile phones in our shules at all times (and am speaking to myself too) and not just Shabbat and Yom Tov
So our old masters, the rabbis, were onto something special and significant when they told us that the best cure for burn-out is to burn with passion, to be interested in something beyond yourself, to always have something to aspire to. If I had to distil their antidote to wisdom in just to two words, I would say they’re לימוד learning and חסד kindness. Learning is internal – inner – directed. Kindness is outer-directed. Learning keeps my mind agile and nimble, creative and alive. Kindness frees me from the prison of ego and narcissism.
And you want to know what these two activities have in common: they’re both impelled and empowered by curiosity. The older I become, the more I’m convinced what keeps me fresh and hopeful, energised and engaged is a sense of curiosity. If you’re inquisitive about the world and the people around you, you will always be capable of hope, capable of renewing yourself, freeing yourself from the tyranny of routine, the debilitating grasp of depression, the servitude of selfishness. It’s the underlying principle of תשובה itself for what is repentance if not the ability to ask how can I change my life, how can I do things differently, how can I find a new way of doing the same old thing?
So this year I’m going to sleep more, I’m going to strive for more balance, learn more, reach out more. The only things I’m going to be sick and tired of are racism and bigotry, antisemitism and climate destruction, sexism and abuse.
I’m going to sleep better, learn more, pray harder, hustle for charity, rise and grind for a better community, thank God for every day and proudly say TGIF –Thank God it’s Shabbat!
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah.