There is a custom of staying up all night on the eve of Shavuot.
The traditional rabbinic explanation for this custom is that God 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: God 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. Of course the clock never stops ticking and any hour that is lost will never return, yet we all feel that there are moments in life that absolutely must not be missed. These are the moments for which we plan ahead – days, weeks, months, and sometimes even years. These are moments that have a different flavor, moments that are inscribed upon the soul, exceptional moments: your first aliyah to the Torah, your marriage ceremony, childbirth. These and other exceptional moments fill you with expectation, and at the moment of truth you want to be there at your peak. You thus prepare yourself to accept into your soul the impression of the moment that will write into the story of your life lines that must be read.
When the longed-for moment arrives, you are filled with great expectation, review all the details involved, and are in great tension. You are filled with excitement and much aliveness. And yet, sometimes precisely because of this great excitement and expectation the moment is missed. You do not withstand the pressure, even though you prepared yourself beforehand. 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 chuppah 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 had drilled so hard freezes in battle.
As with our personal lives, so in our national lives. There are exceptional moments that – if we truly are able to 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. Simply, collapse. The occasion of the giving of the Torah was the moment for which the children of Israel were taken out of Egypt, all the hopes and expectations were focused on this moment – and almost, almost it didn’t happen.
And from that time on, subsequent generations accepted upon themselves to stay awake on the night of Shavuot and not to close their eyes in sleep. We want to try to change what was missed, to gather strength, and not to miss the moment. To know that if the Master of the World chose us to carry his burden we can and we will carry it on our shoulders.
We waited many long weeks for this moment, and all night we will banish sleep from our eyes in expectation, in anxiety, with great hope, and with much modesty.