Shavuot is just around the corner, and most of us are trying to remember what it is exactly that we are supposed to gain from the holiday. We know that it commemorates the day the Torah was given to the Jews on Mt. Sinai, but that is where we go blank. On Pesach we recreate the feeling of the Exodus through the Seder rituals and the matzah, and it is clear that we should focus on redemption. On Sukkot we sit in the succah, and focus on the idea that G-d is our true protection. But what do we do on Shavuot? We have no mitzvot to do on Shavuot that will teach us about this holiday. As a matter of fact, the Torah simply describes it as “Atzeret” which means “to hold back,” because we hold back from work on that day. There is a stress on the cessation of work, but no positive commandment.
However, there is one custom that we have on Shavuot that not only has a major impact on our holiday schedule, but is also instructive in understanding what our role in the holiday is. There is a custom that Jews have followed for thousands of years to stay up the entire night of Shavuot and study Torah. What is the source of this custom? The Midrash tells us that on the morning they were to receive the Torah, the Jews slept late. When the appointed hour for giving the Torah arrived, Moshe had to run through the camp waking the Jews up. In order to rectify the mistake that the Jews made, we stay up learning throughout the night on Shavuot, showing our eagerness to receive the Torah.
This explanation of the custom worked for me throughout my childhood. It offered me a chance to stay up all night learning with my friends, while eating a lot of cake and drinking enough coffee to make an elephant hyper. But as I got older, a big question began to gnaw at me, attacking the foundation of this widespread custom. How could the Jews sleep through such an important event? I know that if I am going on a snowboarding trip, I can’t sleep the entire night prior to the trip. I keep getting up to check my watch— is it time to leave yet?
The Jews were about to experience the most exalted event in all of history; they were going to hear G-d speaking to the entire people, an event unparalleled in all of history. Even if a few people slept deeply, the majority of the nation should have been awake, and they could awaken the few dozers. Could it be that the only person awake was Moshe, and he had to rouse everyone? Additionally, how does our staying up on Shavuos night make up for a mistake that our ancestors made a few millennia ago?
One explanation offered by R’ Akiva Tatz is that the people purposely put themselves into a deep sleep, because of a fundamental error in their view of the Torah. They reasoned that in an event as powerful as G-d’s giving His Torah to mankind, there was no role that they could play. What could a mere mortal add to the experience of the Almighty imbuing His People with the ultimate wisdom? They were of the opinion that the best thing they could do was to go to sleep and let G-d blast his Divine Knowledge into them, and they would awaken changed forever. For them to try to play an active role in this exchange would be an affront to G-d, as it would indicate some parity in a place where none exists.
However, this was an elemental misunderstanding in what the Torah is designed for. The entire goal of creation was that we become partners with G-d in completing the world that G-d purposely designed imperfect. We see this in the verse “G-d blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for on it He abstained from all His work, which G-d had created to do (Genesis 2:3).” The entire purpose of G-d’s creation was “to do,” that man should play an active role in completing the world.
In order to facilitate our role, G-d gave us an instruction manual with a step by step description of what it takes to build perfection. That manual was given to us on the first Shavuot, at Sinai, when G-d revealed Himself to the entire Jewish Nation, and invested us with our manifest destiny of being a Light unto the Nations and leading the world to its ultimate purpose. There could be no more important way for humans to play a role than in their taking the reins of the world into their hands!
This was the fundamental error of the Jews on that fateful night 3,319 years ago! Exactly when they thought they should be playing a passive role, they were supposed to be stepping up to the most important active role ever entrusted to a people. In order to show that we understand that the Torah is all about human action and our possibilities for greatness through accomplishment, we stay up all night engaged in active study, not passive reception of the Torah.
So this Shavuot, try to take some time out (after all, Shavuot is described as Atzeres, a time of holding back), and think about what your job, your task, your function in this world is. Evaluate how you can use the precepts taught in the Torah we received on this very day, to actualize your part in G-d’s world which was created for us “to do.”
Have a Reflective Shavuot,
R’ Leiby Burnham
Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational programs at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.