When I’m doing pastoral counseling, people often tell me that the night is their hardest time.
They manage through the day, but when they prepare for sleep, everything gets harder. Their fears and grief feel more consuming. Their pain is most acute.
Many of us struggle most at night.
There’s an evolutionary explanation for our increased fear and anxiety when the sun goes down. Our brains don’t always distinguish well between the ancient fears of predators and our contemporary intense emotions. From this confusion, our brains keep us on high alert, helping us avoid danger, but being on high alert also flags us to whatever suffering is in our soul.
For others, the business of the day serves to numb us. We might have the distractions of a long to-do list, but as we slow down for sleep, the stillness of night allows buried feelings to come forward.
The rabbis of old wrote our Hashkivenu prayer to address this human need for a sense of safety and calm each night. Here is the Reconstructionist translation of the prayer:
Help us to lie down, DEAR ONE, our God, in peace, and let us rise again, our sovereign, to life. Spread over us the shelter of your peace. Decree for us a worthy daily lot and redeem us for the sake of your great name. Protect us and keep from us enemies, illness, sword, famine, and sorrow. Engulf us in the wings of your protection, for you are our redeeming guardian. Truly, a sovereign, gracious and compassionate God are you. Guard our going forth each day for life and peace, now and always. Spread over us the shelter of your peace. Blessed are you, COMPASSIONATE ONE, whoever guards the people Israel, and all who dwell on Earth.
Here, we ask for protection from physical dangers and emotional pain. We seek the ability to trust that everything will be alright. We hope to rise again the next day, to live full and good lives. When we name our hopes, we remind ourselves that there is goodness still in our world, and we bring some light into the dark of night. By praying, we connect ourselves to that which is greater than ourselves, and by praying our traditional prayers, we connect with hundreds of generations who, having felt our same core feelings, called out in the same language.
There’s another way to understand night and its associated troubles: Night also offers the possibility of redemption and transformation.
There’s a midrash (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 7:4) that King David would put his harp and lyre by his bed each night and would awaken to play them at midnight. During this time, David would play and write his psalms, which often express heartbreak and fear.
Psalm 6:7 perfectly captures painful nights: “I am weary with groaning/ every night I drench my bed/ I melt my couch in tears.”
David, our tradition teaches, wrote these psalms of pain, and they became part of our holy text. Suffering is part of our honest human experience. It’s part of our honest human relationships with each other and with God. This honesty and vulnerable humanity bring us closer to holiness.
As a chaplain, I help people honor their humanity by putting their pain and hopes into words that other people can hear, and into the prayers that God hears. This process brings us closer to holiness, enabling us to transform the suffering, if only bit by bit.
David knew this possibility for transformation when he wrote, “Weeping may stay for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:6).
Night will always yield to morning, just as day will always yield to night. May these cycles sensitize us to our own humanity and expand our compassion for ourselves and others. May we know the holiness of our full, raw, beautiful, humanness.
(Rabbi Diane Tracht is the volunteer manager at the Jewish Family & Career Services and a PRN chaplain at Jewish Hospital.)