Dr. Martin Seligman, known as the founder of the positive psychology movement, writes in his book Authentic Happiness, that when his children were younger he did two activities with them as part of their bedtime routine. First, he would have them recount all of the positive events of the day, as well as the parts that were not as successful, to show them how the positives generally outweighed the negative.
Second, right before they went to sleep, he had his children think about one specific positive to continually imagine as they fell asleep. He explains his reasoning behind this ritual, writing that “[t]he last thoughts a child has before drifting into sleep are laden with emotion and rich in visual imagery, and these become threads around which dreams are woven.” The last thoughts that we think of before we go to sleep heavily impact what we will think about while sleeping.
As much as Bilam wanted to curse the Jews, God wouldn’t let him. Instead of curses, we read of some of the most beautiful blessings that speak straight to the heart of the strong spiritual characteristics that personify Bnei Yisrael. “How great are your tents” (Bemidbar 24:5) is understood as referencing the remarkable modesty they demonstrated while encamping in the wilderness.
Other verses praise their spirituality; “He perceived no iniquity in Jacob, he saw no perversity in Israel” (Bemidbar 23:21), and “there is no divination in Jacob and no sorcery in Israel” (Bemidbar23:23) The blessings then abruptly switch from spiritual praise to physical prowess – “The people will arise like a lion cub and raise itself like a lion; It will not lie down until it consumes prey, and drinks the blood of the slain” (Bemidbar23:24). This is quite a radical transition from spiritual loftiness to savagely guzzling down the blood of the enemy.
Rashi, following the lead of the Midrash, explains that even this physical praise is a spiritual allusion. Not lying down until consuming prey and drinking their blood is referring to the ritual of reciting the Shema before going to sleep. The connection requires some elaboration. What does saying the bedtime Shema have anything to do with slaying enemies?
The Talmud (Berachot 5a) relates in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak, that “anyone who recites Shema on his bed, it is as if he holds a double-edged sword” guarding him from evil, and that even the “demons stay away from him.” Some understand these demons, known in Aramaic as mazikin, as dangerous metaphysical entities that can physically harm people. Saying Shema in bed protects one from being damaged by them. Meiri, however, takes a more rational and psychological approach to the concept of mazikin, explaining the mazikin should be understood as irrational, rebellious thoughts that can entrap people when they are not busy. Because one’s mind tends to wander into these negative thoughts before bed, it is essential to sanctify and unify one’s thoughts for spiritual purposes. Reciting Shema at night protects us from harmful thinking patterns.
The thoughts we think right before we go to bed have a profound impact on our sleep. Many people have trouble falling asleep, disturbed by anxious and other disturbing thoughts. By mindfully reciting Shema, we can ward off whatever “mazikin” we may have, allowing us to sleep more peacefully. By so doing we also have the capability of transforming the physical experience of sleep into a deeply spiritual endeavor.