There is a custom of staying up all night on the eve of Shavuot. The traditional rabbinic explanation for this custom is that G-d 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: G-d 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. Rabbi Lior writes:
It’s possible to define life as consisting of moments that must not be missed. These are the moments for which we plan ahead—days, weeks, months, and sometimes even years. These exceptional moments fill a person with expectation, and at the moment of truth he or she wants to be there at his peak.
When the longed-for moment arrives, a person is filled with excitement and much aliveness. And yet, sometimes precisely because of this great excitement and expectation, the moment is missed. 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 has 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.
And from that time on, subsequent generations agreed not to sleep on the night of Shavuot. We want to gather strength and not miss the moment. 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.
Teddy Weinberger, Ph.D., is Director of Development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.