One night, I found my sixth-grade daughter sleepwalking.
It was almost midnight, when I heard an unexpected noise coming from the family room. I peeked in, and there she was, turning over sofa cushions and moving the DVD cases and Wii controls on the coffee table.
"What's going on?" I said, assuming that she was awake. "Why are you down here?"
"I'm looking for the book. I can't find the book!" she muttered angrily.
"The book...the one that...uuuugh!" she growled in frustration. Her loss for words helped me realize that she was still asleep, so I put my arm around her and led her back to her bed.
The next day she didn't remember a thing.
Sad to say, this wasn't the first time that my daughter had had a troubled sleep. Twice before, I heard her talk in her sleep -- once she said she needed to hurry to a restaurant, and the other time she mumbled something about a misplaced board game. She had started middle school that year, and I had no doubt that the pressure of switching classes and managing many projects and tests had taken its toll. I think that during the night, she was wrestling with the same stress she felt earlier in the day.
Why did she hold onto all that worry? Why couldn't she--to quote Idina Menzel in her award-winning Disney anthem--simply "let it go"?
In this week's Torah portion, Tzav, we learn about rituals that the ancient priests needed to carry out when making sacrifices. Among them is the rule that after making a burnt offering, the priest was not to let the ashes lie; instead he was required to gather the ashes and take them away from the altar. In this way, there would be no remnants from a previous sacrifice when it was time to perform one anew.
I can't help but think about my daughter's sixth-grade year when I consider this aspect of Tzav. After all, there are many days when the last words she said before she went to sleep were the same ones she said when she awoke -- that she was worried about how she did on a test, or she didn't know how she was going to have the time to complete an upcoming project.
Wouldn't it be great if she could have gathered up all her worries each evening -- like the priests with the ashes -- and put them away, so she could start the next day fresh?
Worrying is tough -- it can be unhealthy, too -- so it's unfortunate that middle schoolers often take on this disturbing habit while they are still so young. One likely cause of their worrying is the big workload that comes with moving from elementary to middle school, and I've been involved in PTA committees that try to partner with teachers to keep middle-school homework assignments reasonable and reduce stress on kids. But I know it's a parent's job, too, to make sure their kids know that they have choices each night.
They can hold onto those ashes from the day, or they can remove them.
To be sure, it may take some experimentation on a child's part to figure out just how to get rid of those ashes for good. It may take some deep breaths before bedtime, and some internal effort and determination. They may try listening to music before bed, or losing themselves in a funny book or TV show.
I hope that in time, and with parents' loving help, the middle schoolers I know can learn to remove the ashes at the end of each day. That way, they'll have a much better start in the morning.
And they'll certainly sleep better at night.