In 1973 the late Oliver Sachs, a professor of clinical neurology at the Albert Einstein Medical School wrote a fascinating book called Awakenings. In his book Sachs chronicled his experience with dozens of victims of a 1920’s epidemic of sleeping sickness. In each case, the person was “switched off” from real living. Apathetic, dull and listless were the terms used to describe these patients’ behavior. Through the administration of a new drug L-Dopa, each of the patients showed remarkable transformation. Almost like Rip Van Winkles, they awakened from their sleep, and returned back to life. Symptoms entirely disappeared. And for the first time in decades, some of them once again became animated and active.
In the last few weeks I have been visiting “switched off” people in hospice and playing guitar and singing for them. Through the magic of music I too have witnessed the awakening of their spirits. People who had evidenced little engagement with the world “woke up,” interacted with me, sang along as I played guitar, used rhythm instruments to keep the beat, smiled and some even said “wow” at the end of a song!
I have not only experienced the phenomenon of “awakenings” in the therapeutic arena, but have also witnessed spiritual and intellectual awakenings in my rabbinic work. Examples of awakenings abound in the Bible, as well. Take this week’s Torah portion: Jacob was escaping the wrath of his brother Esau and one night as he became groggy with fatigue he pulled a rock under his head and went to sleep under the desert sky. As he slept, he dreamed of a ladder with the angels ascending and descending on it. According to the Bible, when he awoke he proclaimed: “Surely God is in this place, but I did not know it.” According to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s interpretation, in more modern vernacular, what Jacob said would be expressed in this way: “Wow, God was really here, and I was out to lunch. I was sleeping and missed it. Something awesome and extraordinary was happening around me and I didn’t even notice.”
Just like Sach’s victims of sleeping sickness, we are often in another world. God is all around us and we do not know it. My Jewish tradition is always giving me a refreshing slap on the face saying: “Look beyond your world to the poor and the widow, the new immigrant and the homeless, and extend a helping hand. There are daily miracles every day all around us. All we have to do is pay better attention to appreciate them. Life itself is a miracle, so much of nature is awesome, and the human body in its complexity is a sublime wonder. There is so much good and order around us. All of us are just so busy and not so fully present to notice the beauty of life and all it has to offer.
We all should pay more attention, take notice and look around, and be more fully present to experience these wonders. And hopefully paying attention might lead us to say as Jacob did: “How awesome is this place!”