V'al roshi Shechinat Kel... into His hand I entrust my spirit during my sleep, I will awaken, my spirit and body together as one. HaShem is with me and I will not fear.
There was a period in my life when I had a lot of trouble sleeping. Well, not really with sleeping itself, but rather with falling asleep. Old memories and anxieties would haunt me at night, spinning around my head and filling the darkened room. It was unsafe to lie in bed and even more so to fall asleep.
It was at that time that I discovered K'riat Shema al haMitah — the bedtime Shema.
Like the recitation of Shema in Shacharit and Ma'ariv services, the bedtime Shema is bracketed by several liturgical pieces, in this case related to the end of the day and the minutes before sleep. First there is a meditation on the day, a small-scale heshbon nefesh on the day that is ending. There is a set liturgical formula for this meditation, but much room for personal reflection, prayer, and expansion. I reflect on my actions of the day, in particular focussing on forgiveness — both those whom I need to forgive and those from whom I should seek forgiveness. I focus on my actions, what I have done well and poorly today, what midot I need to improve.
This meditation is followed in the liturgy by the HaMapil prayer:
Please, HaShem my G-d and G-d of my ancestors, lay me to sleep in peace and awaken me in peace. May I sleep quietly, undisturbed by bad dreams or apprehensions. May I be whole before You; may You light up my eyes lest I sleep the sleep of death, for You bring light to the eyes of the living.
The comfort of this prayer is in letting go. I am going to sleep, to an uncertain world. I admit my powerlessness in that world and begin to let go of my fear, praying that HaShem will protect me where I cannot protect myself.
HaMapil is followed by the Shema itself, where the warmth of "uv'shochb'cha (when you lie down)" washes over me. The injunction of the v'ahavta is ancient; spiritual comfort emanates from the words. At this particular time, it fights back the coldness of night.
Next comes Hashkivenu, the same as in the K'riat Shema of Ma'ariv but without the closing blessing. I return to letting go: letting go of yesterday's fears, of remnants of today, of anxieties of tomorrow. Trust in the Source of Life eases the transition from waking to sleeping, from awareness of self to trust in Divine protection to keep me from being lost in oblivion.
K'riat Shema al haMitah ends with Adon Olam:
In Your hand I entrust my spirit during my sleep; I will awaken, my spirit and body together as one. HaShem is with me and I will not fear.
At the time when I started reciting the bedtime Shema, I used it along with the corresponding waking b'rachot to bracket my sleep. Over time, as I resolved the loose ends that had made it necessary to bracket my sleep with prayer, the focus of the bedtime Shema and morning b'rachot changed — the prayers came to bracket my waking hours. They became tools with which to look at myself and the world I create each day. They became signposts, reminders to take time out to think. And they became ways of asking HaShem for guidance.
Into Your hand I entrust myself, my spirit and body as one. You are with me; it is safe to fear.
Translations herein by the author are not literal nor do they necessarily encompass the entire section involved. See The Complete Artscroll Siddur, pp. 288-295, for a complete text and literal translation of the bedtime Shema.