The Night Watch – Psalm 121 and the Practice of Sleep

Over my son, Azriel’s, crib is a richly decorated, laminated legal-size sheet of cardstock on which is printed the Hebrew text of Psalm 121. Before it occupied its current post, it hung over my wife’s bed in the hospital’s delivery room. It has been our constant companion through the most intense and difficult period of our lives. Both in the hospital and at home, this text has reminded me consistently that my abilities are limited and human – but that I can turn to and rely on God to accomplish that which I cannot.

In English, Psalm 121 reads (translation is my own):

1) I lift my eyes toward the mountains–

from where will my help come?

2) My help is from Hashem

maker of Heaven and Earth.

3) Who shall not cause your leg to wobble–

nor shall your Guardian doze off.

4) For the Guardian of Israel–

does not doze or sleep.

5) Hashem is your Guardian–

Hashem is your shadow, right next to you.

6) In the day, the sun shall not hurt you–

Nor the moon at night.

7) Hashem will guard you from all evil–

Hashem will guard your very soul.

8) Hashem shall guard your goings and comings–

from now until eternity.

It is a beautiful psalm, full of the promise of protection that we so desperately desire – and it’s easy to see why it has become traditional to hang these words over the bed of a woman in childbirth.

In looking closer at the text, two concepts stand out – guarding and sleeping. God is our guardian, the psalm reassures us, and our guardian does not sleep on duty. Moreover, our guardian also does not doze off (the verb used in the text is retained in modern Hebrew to refer to napping). God is out vigilant guardian, always with us, always close to us – even as a shadow is always right next to us. Coincidentally, verses 4 and 8 are actually part of the brief liturgy prescribed by the Sages to be said just before going to sleep. Before we sleep, we remind ourselves that God is not sleeping. Someone is always on guard.

Recently, the presence of this psalm over Azi’s crib has become somewhat of a joke. This little child, only alive for eight months, can also be described by at least one of the themes present in the psalm – that is, the not napping and not sleeping part.

I am continually shocked at the willpower that Azriel demonstrates in resisting sleep. For someone who should be sleeping every few hours, he evinces an incredible ability to push through very apparent exhaustion and remain present. It often seems to me as if it’s his mission – to stay awake as long as possible, to neither nap nor sleep, to always be present.

Those of us who are older than eight months may be able to relate to this experience. We are continually pressed against exhaustion and forced to sleep less and work more. We are reminded by our culture, our employers, and our omnipresent push notifications, that something pressing is happening. Somewhere out there – something is happening that we must know about, must do something about, must act on. We are expected to be constantly conscious – a feat all but impossible, except it seems to those very young and willful among us, and the One who oversees all of us.

Although we may be in the image and likeness of Hashem, there are far more things that we don’t share at all with The One Who Spoke and Created the World, than we do. One of those things is rest. We must rest. It’s why my wife and I work so hard to teach Azriel how to nap and how to sleep, and it’s why sleep helps so much to restore the function of our bodies and our minds. Despite all the stimuli telling us to work harder for longer, we must, in one way or another, rest.

Psalm 121 comforts us in many ways – but to me, the most significant manner is that single promise that although we may sleep – God remains awake, ever-watching, ever-guarding. Knowing that God is on duty can allow us to provide ourselves with the much needed rest that we seek. The person who thinks that every problem is their problem and that every hour is part of their shift blasphemes God and neglects the fact that we are not the Watcher of the Universe. We must always be vigilant and commit ourselves fully to our lives while awake, but we must also be willing to let go, to rest, and to leave things in God’s control for a little while. It’s a lesson I continue to try and remember and one I hope to teach Azriel as well.

Antonio Cortina Farinós [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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