05/13/2012 08:35 am ET Updated Jul 13, 2012

An Unorthodox Cure for Insomnia

Twice a year Jews read passages from the Bible that are described as curses that will befall the Jewish people if they do not obey the commandments of the Torah.

One way to approach the rewards and curses of the Torah is in a literal fashion. But alternatively, we might understand them as referring to a transformation that will occur inside us depending upon whether or not we obey the Torah.

Let us take as an example the promise that we will be able to sleep peacefully at night if we obey the Torah. The verse states: "You will sleep and not be afraid, and I will wipe away the dangerous animals from the earth" (Leviticus 26:6).

Sleep disorders are very pervasive in our country. My wife, the neurologist Dr. Rhanni Herzfeld, told me that more than 17 million people have a diagnosable sleep disorder, like sleep apnea, insomnia, or abnormal sleep movements. And as a rabbi I hear a lot about sleep disorders. Sometimes people tell me, I would love to come to morning services, but I need my sleep and I have a hard time falling asleep at night.

It might be that you have a medical condition, and in that case you will need a medical doctor to heal you. But it is possible that it is not a medical condition as much as it is something that is bothering you emotionally and is thus preventing you from sleeping. In that case you might enjoy the following story about the Ponovizher Rav (as I saw cited in a class by Rabbi Sholom Rosner), for this story will teach us how to get a good night's sleep.

Right before the promise of a good night's sleep if we obey the Torah, there is another commandment that states: "If your brother becomes poor, then you shall strengthen him and cause him to live with you" (Leviticus 25:35).

The rabbis learn out from this verse that the poor person must live with you; that is, when you support the poor you yourself have to live and not die. The example for this is that if you are in the desert and you only have enough water for one person to survive, then you should not give the water to your friend, but you should drink it yourself, because your life takes precedence (see Baba Metzia 60b).

The Ponovizher Rav gave an extraordinary explanation of this teaching. The Ponovizher Rav was the rabbi in Bnei Brak, and in 1943 he heard that a large group of orphan refugees who had run away from the Nazis would be coming to live in a makeshift orphanage in Bnei Brak. But there was a problem. At that time in Israel, pillows were very scarce and it would not be possible to purchase pillows for these orphans.

No one knew what to do about this problem. How would they find pillows for the orphans?

Two days before the orphans were set to arrive, word spread that the Ponovizher Rav was going to give a special sermon for the entire city on Shabbat afternoon. So of course everyone gathered to hear what this great rabbi would discuss.

He posed the following question. There is a law in the Talmud that states if a person has a servant and there is only one pillow in the house, then the law is that the servant gets the pillow and not the master. As the Talmud in tractate Kiddushin (20a) says, "One who has a servant really has a master"; it is therefore necessary to give priority to the needs of the servant.

Asked the Ponovizher Rav, how can this be as we have another law that teaches us that your own life takes precedence? So according to this principle, why are you required to give your one and only pillow to your servant?

Answers the Ponovizher Rav, it must be that the law requiring a master to give his one and only pillow to his servant is part and parcel of the commandment to give precedence to your own life. In other words, the Torah understands the very essence of the human soul and understands that if the master is sleeping on a pillow while his servant is sleeping on a hard floor, then the master will not have a restful sleep. Just the opposite: he will be tossing and turning all evening in distress as he thinks of the poor servant who lacks a pillow. Therefore, the Torah commands him: in order for you to have a good sleep at night you must give away your pillow to your servant.

That night, right after Shabbat, the Ponovizher Rav was told by the leaders of his community: Don't worry about getting pillows for the orphans. We will give them our pillows, because if we don't we won't be able to sleep.

The point is that if we want to sleep at night we need to give away our pillows.

This is what the Torah means when it says you will sleep and not be afraid. If you want to sleep, get rid of your pillow.

I know so many people who have all the pillows they need and yet have trouble sleeping at night; they walk through their lives sleep deprived. What many don't realize is that the Torah already told them why they can't sleep. Deep down they are disturbed about their place in the world. How can they sleep while their friend is missing a pillow? How can they sleep while there is so much tragedy in the world?

The ultimate blessing and reward for keeping the mitzvot is in the promise of a World to Come and a pure messianic age, but we can achieve a blessing and reward in this world as well. It is the blessing of a good night's sleep. If we want to feel some sort of relief in this world then we need to spend our life giving to others. The more we give, the better we will sleep.

Excerpted from 'Fifty Four Pick-Up: Fifteen Minute Inspirational Torah Lessons.'