Raanana Community Kollel
Shavuot - Losing Sleep
Rabbi Dovid Horwitz
The festival of Shavuot has very little ritual. Indeed the holiday is known for eating cheesecake and staying up all night studying Torah. The origin for the custom of depriving oneself of sleep on Shavuot night stems from the Midrash that describes how the Bnei Yisrael needed to be awakened on the morning that the Torah was given to them on Mt. Sinai. In order to make amends for their “sin”, we deprive ourselves of sleep and study the Torah in anticipation of that great day. This Midrash seems very strange however. We know that the people who left Egypt were on a level of holiness and greatness that we can’t even imagine. Their connection to Hashem was perhaps stronger than it would ever be until the end of time. If so, it is safe to assume that they must have awaited the day of the giving of the Torah with tremendous excitement and anticipation. How therefore is it even conceivable to posit that they went to sleep the night before and had to be awakened to the giving of the Torah? The very thought of such lackadaisicalness is ludicrous!
On another front, there is a dispute in the Gemara whether the Torah was given on the sixth or the seventh of Sivan. The outcome of the Gemara is that although Hashem wanted to give the Torah on Friday, the sixth of Sivan, Moshe asked for an additional day of preparation. Acceding to his request, Hashem gave the Torah on Shabbat, the seventh of Sivan. This being the case, why do we celebrate Shavuot, the festival commemorating the giving of the Torah, on the sixth and not the seventh? Is there a deeper significance to the dispute between Hashem and Moshe regarding whether the Torah should be given either on Friday or Shabbat? Or was it simply that Moshe felt that the Jews weren’t ready to receive it on Friday?
Perhaps the answer lies in a deeper understanding of Shabbat. Shabbat symbolizes total passivity. It is the quintessential day of rest when no active work is allowed. On the other hand, Erev Shabbat represents a day of toil, a day when one prepares for the Shabbat. On a deeper level, Hashem and Moshe were debating the very nature of Kabbalat HaTorah. Should the Jews receive the Torah through much toil and struggle or should it be showered upon them in a state of rest. Hashem, desiring to give the Torah on Friday, wanted the Jews to be an equal partner in Torah. He wanted them to receive it through sweat and toil. Moshe felt they were not ready for such an exertive approach and rather felt that the Torah should be handed to them passively. Therefore, he asked Hashem to give the Torah on Shabbat, the day of rest. Hashem deferred to Moshe and gave them the gift of Torah as a groom gives his bride the wedding ring, through no exertion of her own. Because Moshe felt that the Jewish people needed to receive the Torah in an absolute state of rest, he made them go to sleep the night before! In truth, they were excited to receive the Torah. They would have stayed up all night in anticipation but Moshe explained to them that they needed to be awakened to the Torah as part of this passive reception. Therefore, they needed to go to sleep! Perhaps the reason why Hashem did not truly wish to give them the Torah in this fashion, on a “silver platter” so to speak, is because of the inherent danger therein, that the Jewish people would lack a proper appreciation for it. Unfortunately, Hashem’s concerns came to pass, and the Jews sinned by making a golden calf only forty days after they received the Torah. Had they accepted the Torah on Friday, through sweat and tears, their appreciation for it would have been so great that they would never have sinned.
The second time around when Hashem gave them the Torah again, after Moshe had broken the luchot, they had to work hard to elevate themselves to a level worthy of kabalat hatorah, which culminated on Yom Kippur.
We celebrate the receiving of the Torah on the sixth of Sivan and not the seventh because that is the day that Hashem truly wanted to give the Torah, and this is the Torah that we eventually received (on Yom Kippur). By observing the sixth of Sivan, we are reminded that the Torah needs to be received on Friday, through tremendous efforts on our part. This is also the reason why we stay up all night studying Torah the night before. Moshe was seemingly wrong in his outlook of how Torah should be received. Putting the people to bed so that they could be awakened to the Torah was not the correct approach to Torah. Our sages are telling us not to make the same mistake. One cannot sleep away one’s life and expect Hashem to shower Torah wisdom upon him. One must struggle every step of the way to acquire Torah knowledge.