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  Chapter 33 from
Our Wondrous World

By Rabbi Avrohom Katz 


Other Available Chapters
30  31  34 


The Long Sleep

Rip Van Winkle was an amiable but lazy farmer who lived in a village at the foot of the Catskills in the good old days when America was still a British colony. One day, while walking with his dog and gun in the mountains, he met an old man dressed in quaint costume. The elderly gentleman asked his help in carrying a barrel of liquor. Rip accompanied him, and met a group of similarly attired strange old men. They gave him large quantities of gin to drink, whereupon he fell into a deep sleep. Waking, as he thinks, the next morning, he found his dog gone, and his gun barrel rusted. He was stiff in the joints, his clothes were ragged and, most interesting of all, he had a long grey beard. He descended to his village and found it completely changed, and that no one recognized him. He was a stranger in his own village! He had in fact been asleep for 20 years, and the hosts who gave him the gin were the ghostly crew of the explorer Henry Hudson. Rip Van Winkle gradually gets his bearings, and finds himself a role as the oldest inhabitant of the village, forever telling stories of his strange experience, and what life was like before the big sleep.

This story, popularized by Washington Irving, was claimed to be based on a traditional German tale. It is likely that both the American and the European versions of the tale were based on the true story of Choni Hama’agel, related in Taanis 23a. In that event, Choni slept for 70 years. When he awoke, he was so upset that not a single person recognized him that he asked to be taken from the world.

The ability to sleep for such extended periods is a rare, even miraculous occurrence in humans. Animals, on the other hand, manage it extremely well, and with great regularity. Every year, as the temperature drops, different animals cope with the onset of winter in a variety of fascinating ways. One of them is by hibernation, in which the animal quite simply goes to sleep for months at a time. At the first sign of winter, Asian and American black bears find themselves a cave, a hole in a tree, or just a good deep pile of leaves and drift off to sleep until spring.

How do they survive without food for so long? Food is scarce during winter, so the bears eat as much as they can in the summer and autumn and convert the excess calories into body fat. A lean bear in late autumn is usually dangerous; feeling that he has not supplied an urgent need, he becomes irritable and often savage. In addition, they conserve energy by their big sleep. (Energy burns calories. The less energetic you are, the less you need to eat, and the less hungry you are. That is why during an extended Yom Tov period, with longer hours of davening, and extra hours of sleeping, you actually feel less inclined to eat than during a normal weekday.) In slumber, the bears’ body temperature may drop by as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit and their metabolic rate by 50 percent.

The polar bear mother does not eat a thing from November until about March. During this time, holed up in the Arctic snow, she gives birth to up to four cubs and nurses them. Her youngsters are utterly dependent on her rich milk for the first three months of their lives. To supply this life-giving milk, and to nourish herself, the mother bear subsists on the thick layer of fat beneath her skin, built up in the summer months when food was plentiful. Even when the bear family has emerged from the den and the cubs start taking solid food, their mother has to share all her catches of fish and seals with them. So by spring, she is only half the weight she was six months earlier, at the end of the previous summer. Think a little. Who is it that taught the bears to eat voraciously to prepare for the long sleep? Who arranged that excess food should be converted to fat (stored energy) rather than be eliminated through the digestive process? Who is it who trained them to lower their body metabolism and their temperature (remember that bears, like humans, are warm-blooded animals whose body temperature is automatically regulated to remain at a constant)? Who educated them to go to sleep for months on end? Who provided the mechanisms of these vital systems and the instincts that trigger them? It all points to a mighty Intelligence.

Up north in Canada, where the winters are long and severe, the painted turtles live. These turtles hatch from their leathery eggs in autumn. Once hatched, you would expect them to begin their active life immediately. That is what most people do, but not the painted turtle. Before emerging into the world, they will spend their first winter in the nest. Almost immediately after birth they have to survive the cold -- they do so by hibernating. Female painted turtles nest in midsummer in south-facing banks. (Having learned geography, they know which way is south.) Then, in the frigid cold, these turtles survive the winter in the same way as so many mammals, by hibernating. During the long winter months, the tiny turtles go into a torpor, eating nothing and barely moving. Their bodies contain a natural antifreeze that enables them to survive for long periods when the temperature in the nest drops below freezing. Now isn’t that something? Here is a revolutionary method of saving money. Remove the central heating from your home, and this winter, program your body to produce antifreeze in the blood Supply. However cold the weather, you’ll never feel cold. Go ahead -- arrange it!

Many people wonder where all the flies go in the winter. Shortly after Succos, they all seem to disappear, and not a one is to be seen throughout the long winter months. Six months later, after Pesach, out they come again. Are they the same ones, and if so, where do they hide? The answer is that during winter, flies will hibernate, sometimes in large groups, in any available dry and warm space such as an attic. They are fast asleep and out of sight. The reason there are so few houseflies in winter is that their eggs will hatch only at temperatures between 75 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, their numbers steadily diminish owing to insecticides and natural causes. Since flies are often carriers of diseases, it is not a bad thing that their numbers diminish during the long sleep. Bees, on the other hand, do not hibernate; they have their honey to live on, and they keep up their own temperature by closely clustering, constantly vibrating their wings to elevate the hive temperature.

During the period of suspended existence, not only does the hibernator’s temperature drop to almost half of normal, but the heart slows down, and all functions of alimentation and excretion cease. Respiration is faint, and in some sleeps appears to wholly cease. Don’t try this, but a hibernating bat was once submerged in a bucket of water for an hour; when taken out, it was still asleep and perfectly healthy despite its ordeal.

It is not only by hibernating that animals are able to survive the winter. Listen to this amazing fact. Everyone knows that when the temperature drops, fingers, toes and ears freeze first. But it has been only within the last 200 years that we have understood that this is due to the ratio between the amount of body surface through which heat can be lost, and the body’s bulk and heat supply. (This explains why mittens are warmer than gloves; the fingers of a glove have more radiating surface than the mass of a mitten.) About 100 years ago, physicists working on the kinetic theory of gases found that heat travels very slowly through still air. Applying this knowledge of dead-air space to our cold-weather clothes, manufacturers have developed coats and jackets with light, airy padding. Progress!

Now although you and I have been in possession of the above-mentioned information for a relatively short time, deer have been using these principles since they were created. With the first autumnal frosts, the deer shed their cool summer coat and grow a special one for winter. Each hair of this winter coat is hollow, like a small tube sealed at the outer end. This effectively covers the deer with a layer of still air, trapped within the hairs. Covered with this air blanket, deer can walk the winter wilderness almost without the need for shelter. You knew nothing, and the deer knew much less than you, yet somehow he knew that he ought to be growing a hollow-haired coat for winter. Where exactly did the deer obtain its knowledge of the laws of advanced kinetic energy? Was it Deer College, or perhaps Reindeer University? A Great Intelligence is clearly indicated.

In autumn the squirrel builds a loose ball of a nest, using dry leaves and twigs. Curled inside this airy mass when the snow flies, he becomes his own furnace, heating the still air around him until he is locked in comfort. In the depth of winter, a woodpecker lies in the cozy hollow of a tree. Inside, surrounded by wood and out of the wind, he fluffs his feathers -- the most amazing insulating material in existence. Wrapped in motionless air, he needs to heat only himself. Outside, the temperature can be below zero. Inside his very own quilt, he will be a warm 104 degrees.

Ail the wisdom inherent in the animals, their ability to survive a six-month sleep, to keep warm without clothes, antifreeze and insulation, did not come to them by chance. Nor did it come from themselves. Wisdom and intelligence always emanate from a Higher Intelligence.

 
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