It took almost a decade until Professor Moshe Idel helped me retrieve my dignity and relationship with Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105). I flunked Rashi in third grade - I received a "C" - I couldn't read Rashi script to save my life. The shame sat with me for years. I thought I had overcome being "Rashi-challenged" until my first exam on Rashi in tenth grade. Our Torah teacher listed 10 verses of the Chumash that we had not learned yet in class, and asked us to answer "What was Rashi's question? What was his problem?" It seemed simple - ten verses, ten questions. I need not have to tell you how I felt when days later I received my exam back with a painful twenty four(out of one hundred). Clearly what I thought was disturbing Rashi was not what my teacher thought was disturbing Rashi. Therefore you can only imagine how vindicated I felt when Professor Idel explained in a class on "The Mystical Prayer" at Hebrew University in Yerushalayim, that Rashi was anything but a literalist. In actuality, he claimed, Rashi was mystic; and whenever Rashi said, "this is the literal interpretation" he was actually camouflaging mystical secrets. Alas, it seems that in tenth grade I knew that Rashi was a mystic, but lacked that information, so I couldn't explain to my teacher, Mrs. Rachaman, that I was reading Rashi as a mystic, and she was reading Rashi as a literalist.
It is for this reason that Rashi didn't surprise me when he felt it necessary to explain why Bilam invites Balak's emissaries to spend the night with him before giving them an answer whether he will be joining them or not.
The verse says: "And he said to them, sleep here tonight and I will bring back word that which God will speak to me..." (Bamidbar/Numbers 22:8). On the words "sleep here tonight" Rashi comments: "the Divine Spirit rested on him only at night..." In the eyes of a mystic it is clear that what most people think of as sleep is not the case for all. For some of us, sleep is a gift to our physical body, allowing it to rest and replenish its strength after a long day of activity. For some of us, going to sleep at night is an opportunity to live out another dimension of our lives. Depending on how you live your "daytime life," your "nighttime life" will unfold as well. Some will define it as a time for the unconscious to unravel and work through that which they were not aware of during the day, or perhaps too afraid to touch in their conscious state of being. For others, as the Talmud in the ninth chapter of Masechet Brachot alludes to, it is a time to encounter the Divine, as dreams are perceived as one sixtieth of prophecy. Reb Ze'ev Wolf of Zhitomer (d. 1798), a disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch (the Preacher of Mezritch, d.1772) will interpret in such a vein the verse in Shir HaShirim / the Song of Songs (3:1), "On my bed at night I have sought out that which my heart desires" - it is by means of what avails itself to us at night, that we can see who we really are during the day, he will teach.
It is for this reason that one of my dear friends and colleagues at Ziegler, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, will abruptly stop me in the middle of a story or dilemma that I'm sharing with him, to ask: "Did this happen in your open eyed life or your closed eyed life?" I answer, though in reality they are both my life. My mother will often ask, in a similar situation: "How do you know which is your real life?" to which I respond: "The story that begins where I previously left off is what people call "reality" and the stories that don't normally have such an obvious connection between the chapters is what people habitually call "dream". It is also for this reason that the Shma, and the prayers that I say before going to sleep, I recite with deep intentionality. You see, I have an illusion that I have some say as to how I live my "opened eye life" but I know that the minute I close my eyes, I totally surrender to God, and dwell in God's arms. For me, going to sleep is my deeper manifestation of my belief and trust in God, deeper and more vulnerable than what I experience in my "open eyed life."
Since arriving at Ziegler thirteen summers ago, I have been taught to think of this liminal time between two segments of daylight in a different manner to that which defines so much of my being. I have been taught to not only ask people about their dreams, but to also ask people: "What keeps you up at night?" "What has a hold on your mind, and heart, and soul and being, that doesn't give you rest, that doesn't allow you to sleep?" These too, our sleepless nights, can be a form of manifestation of the Divine.
When I first started writing these words of Torah on Sunday night, I had thought to complete them with assuring you that by the end of tenth grade I learned to ask the questions Mrs. Rachaman thought were Rashi's questions. I knew that my questions were also Rashi's questions, but truth be told, I wanted a good grade in the class. But on Monday morning we learned that Gil-ad, Naftali and Eyal won't make it home from their Yeshiva the way they had hoped to, when setting out eighteen days ago. Naftali and Gil-ad, sixteen, the age you are when you finish tenth grade... and Eyal, nineteen, wouldn't have the opportunity to find answers in the halls of a university the way I did. Tonight, Gil-ad, Naftali and Eyal are keeping me up, as they have, though differently than the last eighteen nights. And from tonight, I tell myself, the way to be with them is with my eyes closed.
I pray that as we greet the Shabbat angels in our homes this Shabbat we continue to see their glorious smiles. And I bless us with the presence of mind and heart to hold our children in our arms one more moment, one extra moment. Because they are our children. Because we can!