When we’re anxiously looking forward to something, we get nervous and ‘pumped up’ with anticipation. Often, we’re too excited to sleep.
Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah, has many customs. Among them is the custom to stay up all night (or most of it) studying Torah. This custom makes sense on its own: receiving the Torah is such a momentous event, who can sleep anyway?
Staying up all night is also a re-enactment of the first time the Torah was given: After all, what could be more momentous, more exciting, more ‘pulse-pounding’ than receiving the Torah?
The Jewish people had a sense of what was coming – a direct revelation from G-d, a new relationship as a result, and the power to transform the world, to invest and imbue creation with holiness, through the “simple” act of performing a mitzva (commandment). Not only would the Jewish people become a holy nation, a nation of priests, but they also, through their study of Torah and observance of mitzvot, would become a “light unto the nations,” making possible Tikkun Olam, the perfection of creation.
But the custom to stay up the night of Shavuot is actually based on a Midrash. The Midrash teaches that the first time around, when the Torah was to be given on Mount Sinai, the Jewish people not only fell asleep that night, they ‘slept in’ the next day – they overslept! G-d had to wake them up!.
How could that be? For 49 days the Jewish people had anxiously and with great anticipation counted the days. They’d gone through a whole series of preparations. And yet, when the time came they fell asleep! And they didn’t even wake up on time.
As a result, as a correction, we stay up all night studying Torah.
But still, the question remains, what happened?
Chasidic philosophy provides an answer. It discusses the nature of our comprehension of, and attachment to, G-dliness. Chasidut explains that however deep that comprehension or great that attachment of the soul within the body, the comprehension and attachment is magnitudes greater for the soul when it resides above. (Tanya, ch. 37)
When we sleep, our soul ascends to the heavenly realms. So the sleep of the Jewish people the night of Shavuot, the night before the giving of the Torah, was actually meant to be a higher level of preparation, allowing the soul to achieve a closer connection beforehand, and able to have a deeper comprehension of the nuances and meanings of the Torah once given.
But if that’s the case, why do we have to stay up all night now, as a correction?
The answer is that Torah is not in heaven. The Torah was given so that the physical world could be perfected, purified, made into a fit dwelling place for G-dliness. This requires mitzvot, and mitzvot can only be done by a soul in a body.
And that means just as the Torah requires a soul in a body, so the preparation for receiving the Torah should be by a soul in a body. “Sleeping through it,” letting the soul go to heaven to prepare on its own, goes against the purpose. So we must fix it by not sleeping
I look forward to seeing in Shule during Shavuot as well as joining our ‘All Night Learning’ session, where we experience the relevance and beauty of our traditions in a practical way.
Rabbi Nir Gurevitch
Questions & Answers: Email the Rabbi