You’re tired. You glance outside and it’s pitch black. It’s late. You check your watch and it’s 1:30 a.m. You want to go to sleep. You’re struggling to stay awake. The heaviness of your holiday meal of soup, chicken, meat and dessert tires you out. Your head starts to drop from fatigue when you suddenly jerk it back up. You have to stay up all night.
Your rabbis told you it’s the right thing to do, your parents told you that you should really go learn, all your friends are learning tonight and told you to join. As your head droops back down onto your text there’s just one thought going through your head: “Why? Why I am staying up to learn on the first night of Shavuot?”
On this holiday, which literally means “weeks,” we celebrate receiving the Torah, the basis of Jewish life. Another name for Shavuot is, zman matan Torahteinu, translated as the time when we received the Torah. Shavuot occurs on the 6th and 7th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan. (The secular dates in 2013 are May 15 and 16.)
There is a commandment from the Torah to count the 49 days between the second night of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot; the time period is known as the Omer. There are many reasons why we count the days, but they share the same underlying message: counting is preparation for Shavuot. The counting of the Omer is a daily reminder that Shavuot is coming and we need to prepare ourselves with the proper mindset for the holy days.
Why do we need to prepare ourselves? After all, we received the Torah years ago and we were prepared then!
In Judaism the holidays aren’t just a remembrance; we are supposed to relive the miracles and events of the day. So in honor of Shavuot we relive how the Jews in the desert prepared themselves to receive the Torah.
You don’t have to learn Torah to prepare yourself; there are many ways to prepare for Shavuot. You can do anything positive such as being more kind to people, giving more charity and showing more respect to your parents and teachers.
But how do we receive receiving the Torah? By learning Torah, of course.
“We got the Torah on Shavuot and therefore we learn Torah to commemorate the gift we received as well as to show its eternalness,” wrote Ariel Alteraz, a sophomore at the Jewish Educational Center (JEC) in Elizabeth, N.J., in an e-mail interview.
There’s another question: Why do we commit to learning for hours at night? Why do we give up sleep when we can barely keep our eyes open? Why can’t we just learn in the morning when we’re able to concentrate?
“We stay up all night to make up for the Jews at Har Sinai waking up late for Matan Torah [the giving of the Torah],” wrote Matt Fixler, a JEC sophomore, in an e-mail. I guess the Jews didn’t realize getting the Torah wasn’t like getting ready for school — it has purpose and is worth getting up for.
“[We learn all night] to make up for the Jews sleeping the night before they got the Torah rather than preparing themselves for the great gift they were about to receive,” wrote Mishan Rosenzweig, also a JEC sophomore, in an e-mail. In other words, we study all night to correct the fact that the Jews didn’t have the proper mindset the morning they received the Torah.
While the Jews in the desert interrupted their mental preparation, we correct their mistake by having a full night of learning. Then we feel saturated with Torah and are eager to celebrate the day we received it. Trust me, no interruption makes a big difference in how you feel.
Carrying the mental preparation of the Omer straight into Shavuot night’s learning is invigorating. The full night of learning, whether it’s Jewish philosophy, Talmud, the weekly Torah portion, or anything in between is a powerful feeling. You feel great and accomplished and you truly feel ready for the big day of Shavuot.
“Shavuos is a time to remember that Hashem gave each and every Jew the gift of Torah,” said Rabbi Yisroel Rich, a guidance counselor at JEC. “It’s a time to remember that the Creator of the world cares about each of us. We spend the night appreciating the gift and appreciating how precious our relationship with our Creator is.”
In the “Ethics Of The Fathers” (1:2) there is a famous Mishna that states: “The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of God and deeds of kindness.” The alternative name for Shavuot, zman matan Torahteinu, reflects these three pillars. Matan means “gift” — Hashem gave us the Torah and his generosity represents kindness. Torah denotes the pillar of Torah study. The nu of Torahteinu means “we,” and that shows the pillar of service to God. We are the ones who must devote ourselves to Jewish practices and to worshipping Hashem.
This is also why there is such a long preparation period. We prepare to receive not just the Torah but also everything it encompasses — the essence of Judaism. When the Jews received the Torah they received all the laws, morals and ethics needed to be a Jewish nation.
This begs the final question of why staying up all night is a popular custom. The answer is a combination of everything already mentioned. We spent 49 days preparing for Shavuot, but the intensity and emotion won’t last if we don’t apply ourselves to Torah learning immediately.
This could’ve been the mistake of the Jews — they woke up late and missed out on the specialness that would’ve been there had they been up right away. So today we don’t sleep; we dive straight into the holiday to show the importance of it and to keep up the positive feelings and mindset acquired over the last seven weeks.
Immediacy is an important lesson for teens. We all know that no matter how much hype something gets, if we don’t act on it right away the energy will die down in seconds. One of the lessons of Shavuot is the importance of diving straight into things.
You need a positive and proactive attitude; don’t hesitate, just jump directly into events. Get involved immediately so the fervor doesn’t dissipate and you don’t get around to doing good deeds. Take it from Shavuot, you have to get involved from the get-go if you want to reap any benefit.
As you’re fighting to stay awake while learning this Shavuot, think about this message, think about productivity; maybe it’ll help you last the night and affect your other pursuits.
Oh, one more thing: don’t forget to enjoy your sleep the next day. You deserve it.