An All-Nighter on Shavuot

By Teddy Weinberger

Published June 16, 2016, issue of June 16, 2016.

There is a custom of staying up all night on the eve of Shavuot. The traditional rabbinic explanation for this custom is that God found the Children of Israel asleep on the morning of the day when they were set to receive the Torah. A “proof text” for this claim is Exodus 19.16: “On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled.” Why the pyrotechnics so early in the morning? Yes, the obvious answer is: God had to do something to wake all those people up.

I’ve always thought that staying up on the eve of Shavuot is a nice idea. However, my ability to absorb learned words maxes out around midnight, and in truth many of those who stay awake all night do not “learn” a lot. According to my friend and teacher Rabbi Lior Engelman, however, the very act of staying up all night on Shavuot is important in and of itself.

It’s possible to define life as consisting of moments that must not be missed. Of course the clock never stops ticking and any hour that is lost will never return, yet we all feel that there are moments in life that absolutely must not be missed. These are the moments for which we plan ahead – days, weeks, months, and sometimes even years. These are moments that have a different flavor, moments that are inscribed upon the soul, exceptional moments: one’s first aliyah to the Torah, one’s marriage ceremony, childbirth. These and other exceptional moments fill a person with expectation, and at the moment of truth he wants to be there at his peak. He thus prepares himself to accept into his soul the impression of the moment that will write into the story of his life lines that must be read.

When the longed-for moment arrives, a person fills with great expectation, reviews all the details involved, and is in great tension. He is filled with excitement and much aliveness. And yet, sometimes precisely because of this great excitement and expectation the moment is missed. The person does not withstand the pressure even though he prepared himself beforehand. The anxiety, the fear of disappointment, the feeling of insignificance in the face of the demands of the moment–all of these sometimes cause a person to crumble and miss that irreplaceable moment. Sometimes a bride and groom are not fully present under their chuppa and are not able to absorb their huge moment, sometimes a bar mitzvah boy loses his voice on his big day, sometimes an officer who had drilled so hard freezes in battle.

As with our personal lives, so in our national lives. There are exceptional moments that, if we are able to truly experience them, are burned into our consciousness forever. But sometimes at the moment of truth we are simply asleep. And so it happened to the Children of Israel on the eve of receiving the Torah. We fell asleep, we simply fell asleep, and we almost missed the moment. The People of Israel did not sleep out of indifference but out of a feeling of smallness in the face of the big event, out of a feeling that they could not absorb such a big moment. Simply, collapse. The occasion of the giving of the Torah was the moment for which the Children of Israel were taken out of Egypt, all the hopes and expectations were focused on this moment, and almost, almost it didn’t happen.

And from that time on, subsequent generations accepted upon themselves to stay awake on the night of Shavuot and not to close their eyes in sleep. We want to try to change [tikkun] what was missed, to gather strength and not to miss the moment. To know that if the Master of the World chose us to carry his burden, we can and we will carry it on our shoulders. We waited many long weeks for this moment, all night we will banish sleep from our eyes in expectation, in anxiety, with great hope, and with much modesty.

Happy Shavuot.

Teddy Weinberger writes from Israel.

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