Of Sleepless Shavuot Nights...

Rabbi M. Shulman

June 5, 2003

Based on the Zohar, there is a very old tradition for Jews to spend the first night of Shavuot staying awake studying Torah all night long. This is called tikun leil Shavuot. The word tikun has two meanings. Its simple meaning is "set" or "instituted" program, and refers to the specific curriculum of study that was developed for this night of learning. But the word also means to "fix" or "correct", and hence the notion that somehow this night of learning comes to right an ancient wrong. It is in this context that many commentaries link the all-night learning on Shavuot to a Midrashic statement in Pirkei D'Rebbe Eliezer, which says that, on the morning of the giving of the Torah, Moshe Rabeinu went around waking the Jewish people up from their good night's sleep. Imagine sleeping in on the most important day in Jewish history, the day we were supposed to receive the Torah directly from G-d! The audacity of it is staggering. And for generations to come, Jews would "right this wrong" by staying up all night learning Torah on Shavuot instead of "sleeping in".

I have always been puzzled by this Midrash, and its connection to the tikun leil Shavuot. I know that when I am anticipating a day of great importance, I have difficulty sleeping the night before, because of the excitement and adrenaline that is generated within. I am sure that this is true for most people. How could the Midrash assume that the Jewish people "slept in" that morning? I would be very surprised if they even went to sleep. G-d was going to speak to the entire congregation—directly, for the first time in Jewish history, or even world history. Was this an event to "sleep through"? For 49 days, since leaving Egypt, the people had been preparing for this moment. How could they have blundered so?

I would like to suggest an alternative explanation to this Midrash. I don't think the Jews "slept in" the morning of matan Torah (the giving of the Torah). I think they "slept in" after the giving of the Torah. I think the Midrash is metaphorically commenting on the tragedy of what happened in the days and weeks after that momentous event. How had it changed the people? What lasting impact did it have?

It is true that before G-d came down upon the mountain and spoke to the people they had proclaimed, in unison, their loyalty to G-d, declaring: "All that G-d instructs we will obey and listen", na'aseh ve'nishmah. But immediately after hearing G-d's thundering voice the people told Moshe that they were frightened, and they stood back. And that fear continued to germinate and grow in the hearts of the people for forty days while Moshe stood on the mountaintop, until finally the people came to doubt the very veracity of the experience, and created a god fashioned of gold to worship instead. Forty days after the great Revelation of G-d to mankind, the people returned to their idolatrous past. How can this have happened?

The answer is really quite simple. The answer offered by many of the Biblical commentaries (Maimonides, Ibn Ezra, etc.) is that human nature cannot change overnight. The people may have seen great miracles, such as the plagues in Egypt, or the splitting of the sea, but they still had doubt in their hearts. And no miracle in the world will ever change the heart of a person who does not want to change. The generation that left Egypt may have professed their loyalty to G-d by declaring na'aseh ve'nishmah, but time and again they demonstrated that, at least in this respect, their hearts and their mouths were not one. And in the aftermath of the events of Mt. Sinai, the Jewish people were found to be sleeping!

Perhaps that's the real reason for the tikun leil Shavuot—not to rectify the wrong of sleeping the night before the Revelation, but to rectify the wrong of going to sleep (figuratively) after the Torah was given. We demonstrate that, unlike our ancestors, we are not afraid to approach the Torah, to come close, as close as possible, to the study of Torah, embracing Judaism with all our heart and soul. We do not see the great miracles of the skies opening up, or seas splitting. But we hear the voice of the Almighty no less strongly through the Torah that we study, and the Mitzvot we embrace, that night, and every day subsequently. Indeed, if the all-night learning does not touch our souls, and lead us to greater spiritual commitment to Torah and Yiddishkeit, then it is not worth the sleepless night!

As in previous years, we will have an all-night Shavuot learning program at the shul, together with special Torah learning shiurim throughout the holiday. But the real impact of the success of this "holiday of learning" will not be measured in the attendance at these programs, but in the commitment of all of us to strengthen our devotion to Jewish life, and to making Judaism a more meaningful part of our lives. If we succeed here, then we shall have gone a long way towards "tikun"—real "tikun"—of ourselves, and of our people.

Chag Sameach.