Sheer Nonsense

When I woke up from a Shabbat afternoon nap today — which may, given how crazy the next two days are looking, be the last time I sleep before Rosh Hashanah — I was bathed in a cold sweat. I had just had a terrible nightmare in which I had accidentally done a Heicha Kedusha on Rosh Hashanah! Horror of horrors! There went Zichronot, Malchiyot, and Shofarot, down the tube! (I mean, down the shofar.) Mourning over the hours of wasted piyut practicing, I slowly awakened to the realization that it had all been but a fleeting dream, like man’s life – its origin in dust, its end in dust.

Calmed by this notion, I fell back to sleep, only to wake up once more with another strange idea burrowed inside my brain, this time in the form of a song I seem to have composed in my sleep. The words were set to the “K’vakarat roeh edro” part of the U’n’taneh Tokef, and they went something like this:

God is counting sheep.
God is Big Bo Peep!
God is counting, God is counting
Maybe God can’t sleep.

Lying in bed, I tried to analyze these bizarre lyrics. Apparently I had been thinking about the words of the U’n’taneh tokef, one of the central prayers of musaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Drawing on the imagery from the mishnah in Masechet Rosh Hashanah, this prayer compares God to a shepherd who is counting the members of his flock as they pass, one by one, underneath his rod. I must have been dreaming about God counting sheep, an image that I associate with being unable to fall asleep.

On Rosh Hashanah, of course, we are told we should not fall asleep in the daytime. The Talmud Yerushalmi states that “if one sleeps at the year’s beginning, his good fortune likewise sleeps.” And so we should not let the image of God counting sheep lull us into a pleasant midday mid-shul slumber. Perhaps we would fall asleep at the very instant God was counting us! How would we ever recover from that one?

I am not the first to write about sleeping on a holy day of judgment, a notion that has inspired such poems as Jane Mayhall’s “Sleeping Late on Judgement Day” and Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” (where “complacencies of the peignoir” are privileged above the “the holy hush of ancient sacrifice”). Certainly for me, though, the thought of sleeping on judgment day inspires more anxiety and trepidation than for either of these poets, shaped as I have been by the awe-inspiring liturgy of the Machzor.

After all, as we read in the U’netana Tokef (again from the Mishnah), God is able to count us like sheep because God is one “who fashions all people’s hearts together, who knows all their actions” (Psalms 33:15). In other words: There is no pulling the wool over God’s eyes!

Shana tova – may we enjoy a rousing tefillah and a year of spiritual awakening!

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