The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a third of us aren’t getting the recommended seven hours of sleep we need. A growing number of scientists are calling our lack of sleep “an escalating public health crisis.” Some aren’t getting enough sleep because they are choosing to stay awake until deep into the night, some to work, others to talk, others to watch, and many because they just can’t disconnect.
Yet, many others desperately want to sleep, but simply can’t. It is estimated that ten to fifteen percent of adults in America have a chronic insomnia disorder. They toss and turn, count sheep, and ultimately many resort to taking Ambien or melatonin, insomnia medications that make up an industry generating $70 billion per year. Just recently, the FDA ordered that several popular types of prescription sleeping pills, including Ambien must come with a prominent "black box" warning slapped on the box describing the dangerous side effects. Pills are not a sustainable solution. So, what can be done?
Among those sent home from war in our Parsha is the individual described as soft or faint of heart. Who is this person? What disqualifies him from fighting on the front lines? Rashi quotes: Rebbe Yossi said, the one who is fearful is afraid of the aveiros, the mistakes or indiscretions in his hand get sent home. Which violations? What is so severe that it disqualifies someone from fighting for the Jewish people?
The Ohr Ha’Chaim Ha’Kadosh explains that when a person goes out to war, is enlisted to the battle front, it is only natural to be scared, to say to oneself, what if I am unworthy to survive and to triumph? The mind naturally will take the soldier to a bad place, to have doubts and fear. He will think about aveiros, the mistakes he has made, the poor judgment he has shown, the violations and how they are about to catch up with him. But why are they described as b’yado? Don’t such thoughts and fears happen in the heart or the head, not the hand?
The Imrei Emes explains that to understand, we must look at the pesukim that come right before. The Torah tells of three individuals whom we send home from the battle front – someone who built a new home and hasn’t lived in it, someone who planted a vineyard and hasn’t harvested it, and someone who is in their first year of marriage.
When it says we send home the person who is soft hearted and is carrying something in his hand, it means these three individuals. What they have in common is they are distracted; their thoughts are elsewhere. How can one be expected to fight, defeat an enemy, triumph in battle, how can they hear orders let alone follow through on them when they are thinking about the house they didn’t get to live in, the vineyard whose wine they never got to taste or their loved one who is back home?
We don’t just send home someone who can’t stop thinking about what they did wrong. The stakes are so high, the consequences so grave that we also send home someone who can’t stop thinking about something they did right, but whose thoughts are extraneous to the battle. We need soldiers who can control and regulate their thoughts, who can quiet the noise and distractions in their mind and who can stay focused on the battle at hand, who can consistently execute on what they need to do.
We are living in a time of unprecedented noise; we can hardly hear anyone or anything let alone hear our own inner voice. If we are to experience our revelation, if we are to have or breakthrough, be our best selves and have a greatest relationship with Hashem, we need to quiet so many of the distracting sounds and voices around us and in us.
Like the soldier, each day we go to battle, we fight to succeed at work and in life. We confront enemies in the form of distractions, temptations and our own sense of insecurities or unworthiness. Our minds run wild on overdrive all day long in ways that sabotage our own success. Some are constantly thinking about every possible problem that could arise, every reason they won’t succeed, everything that could go wrong. For others, the mind is filled with the noise of trying to juggle a million things, emails to return, phone calls to make, people to visit, tasks to get done, people to make happy. For yet others, the mind is overloaded with keeping up with the news cycle, with social media, pop culture, work, home and more. The common denominator is a cluttered mind, a distracted existence.
Who can find peace while awake or calmly fall asleep when your mind is on overdrive, constantly bombarding you with thoughts, worries and things to do? A person with a scattered mind gets sent home from war and we are losing too many battles in our lives because of the inability to concentrate, to be present, to find peace, we struggle to disconnect and to simply shut it down.
A Chassid was once plagued by negative thoughts that relentlessly intruded upon him. He was sidetracked by temptations and fantasy; he was distracted by worry and anxiety. One evening it was particularly bad. He couldn’t stop having negative thoughts and inappropriate thoughts. He couldn’t take it anymore, so he went to his Rebbe’s house to get advice. He knocked on the front door, but nobody answered. He knocked harder, but still no response. Brazenly, he walked around to the side and looked through the window. He saw the Rebbe sitting at the dining room table learning and so he knocked on the window. But lo and behold, the Rebbe didn’t look up and his efforts to get the Rebbe’s attention continued to fail. Disappointed and frustrated, the Chassid went home.
The next morning after shul, he waited patiently until it was his turn and he finally had the attention of the Rebbe. Somewhat exasperated, he said, Rebbe! I desperately needed you last night. The Rebbe said I know. I know what you wanted to ask and I already gave you an answer. Bewildered, the Chassid said, what do you mean? I knocked and knocked but you never answered, and I didn’t even get a chance to ask my question. The Rebbe looked at him and explained. Last night you came over to my house. You knocked on the front door, and then you knocked even harder. You came around and knocked on my window. You kept knocking, but the choice was mine whether or not to let you in. These thoughts, these questions, doubts, temptations, worries, they can knock all day on the door of your mind, but never forget, the choice remains yours whether or not to let them in.
I love this story because it is so much more than a story, it is a strategy, it is a solution. Thinking about our thoughts and mind in this way has helped me personally and countless others that I have shared it with.
Like the Chassid, so many of us are plagued by unwanted and unwelcome thoughts. They could be of temptation, of doubt, of our unworthiness or simply of being overwhelmed. Never forget - we cannot control what knocks, but we absolutely can control what and when we let them in.
Stop saying that you cannot control your mind from racing. You don’t have to perseverate, marinate, stew in a thought, a fear, concern or regret. I am obviously not talking about diagnosed anxiety or mental illnesses that needs therapy and at times medication. I am referring to the ordinary, everyday noise that clogs our brains. You are the judge, and you are the policeman of the gates into your mind. Decide what to let in, what to think about, what to focus on, what is productive, healthy, and positive and what you are going to lock out, what is a distraction, destructive, negative, and unwelcome.
The stakes are high, we cannot win, we can’t win the battle to fall asleep, the battle to get ahead, the battle to get everything done, if we let any thought, image or idea storm our gates and take up precious real estate in our mind. David Allen, the great architect and author of an amazing book and system called Getting Things Done, says, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” Let them go, put them down, control them, don’t let them control you.
Make this your year to quiet your mind and you will likely have your biggest breakthrough yet, an enormous growth spurt in every area of your life, beginning with a good night’s sleep.