This article is dedicated as a zechus for Refuah Sheleima for Esther Shaindel bas Shoshana.
Based on/inspired by an article on Tikkun Leil Shavuos by Eli Landes, for Chabad.org.
A moving festivity permeates the atmosphere, as we sway and pray through the evening’s services. At their conclusion, the men fold their talleisim, the women cluster in companionable conversation, and youth mill around, anticipating what’s to come. Siddurim are closed and laid aside with a kiss… but no coats are donned, the lights remain bright and the room filled with people. The heavy, familiar scent of coffee billows from numerous steaming cups, and a sweet selection of scrumptious cheesecake is mysteriously reduced to a few scant crumbs as the night wears on. The crowd finally settles down, with the screech and creak of chairs scooting forward, and all lean in with rapt attention… except for the few stragglers nodding off in the face of the late hour. Along with Seforim, wellsprings of Torah wisdom, hearts and minds are opened up. Though the hours and rays of dawn inevitably edge nearer, the passage of time seems suspended in the midst of intense preparation for the renewal and revelation to soon take place.
This is Tikkun Leil Shavuos.
Though the meaning of this fascinating custom can’t truly be conveyed adequately in a few English words, it is practically understood as the “Rectification of Shavuos Night.”
Shavuos is the anniversary of Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah). Our wedding with Hashem. The day we became His People. The day the gaping chasm between Heaven and Earth was spanned. It’s a significant – momentous! – day, indeed.
How high and spiritually elevated do we feel after a sleepless night? How energetic or attractive do we appear when we’re weary, tousled and dazed? For the revival of the most important day in the history of our Nation, why on earth do we aspire to run on empty, exchanging a revitalizing period of slumber for an all-night study session?! Even seasoned students recognize the diminishment of productivity and success their day is met with, after crunching for assignments and tests throughout the night!
Why on earth, indeed? Perhaps it isn’t earthly at all, but rather beyond earth. Way beyond; Divine. What perspective and energy other than Heavenly could promote such an atypical demonstration?
Throughout the ages and amidst the globe, Kabbalistic masters and Halachic authorities alike preserved a precious custom – and “Minhag Yisroel Torah Hee (the custom of Israel is Torah)” – to keep burning the light of Torah on Shavuos night, in focused learning until daybreak. The Magen Avraham, a renowned posek of the 17th-century, was the first to offer the following Midrashic account as the basis for this tradition:
The night before the giving of the Torah, the entire Jewish People – the ‘Bride’ – laid down to sleep. A bit of rest before the arrival of the fantastical occasion could only be harmless, perhaps even beneficial! Tragically though in the morning, at the wedding canopy that was Har Sinai, the Supernal Groom – G-d Himself – lamented in anxious wait: The ‘Bride’ was absent, still sleeping peacefully! Of course the extraordinary ceremony couldn’t carry on under such circumstances, so the Ro’eh Neeman, the Faithful Shepherd, Moshe Rabbeinu, set out to rouse Bnei Yisroel.
To correct the sin of our ancestors’ copious shut-eye heading into the day that marked the birth of our Nation, we stay up the whole night (or at the very least, until Chatzos [Halachic midnight] – find your locale and respective Zmanim [Halachic times] here!) learning Torah in preparation for the big day.
Unless you’re a deeply holy individual of very lofty caliber who can remain awake against all the odds – or perhaps just an insomniac – consumption of caffeine (heavier for some than others) is a requisite. If coffee (caffeinated or not) wreaks havoc on your system, try chocolate, or something sugary. It works. I think. But that aside…
For most people, when one anticipates a serious or exciting event to come soon, sleep – at least solid sleep – is elusive. Based on this, we could suggest the converse is also true. Bnei Yisroel fell asleep, slept, and overslept, nearly missing their wedding! Doesn’t this seem to imply that the enthusiasm of the Jewish People was lacking – even nisht (not) – to receive the Torah?!
We’re missing something. The puzzle pieces don’t merge.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe of righteous memory steps in with groundbreaking insight to clear the difficulty.
The nation slogged through the forty-ninth level of spiritual impurity; and, upon their redemption from their oppressors, committed to a forty-nine day journey of growth and transformation. They strove and toiled to reverse and refine a negative trait each day to be positive and sanctified, so that they could receive the Divine gift of Torah wholeheartedly as Hashem’s servants. For a nation of such indomitable spirit, who invested everything they had to clear away the pollution and grime to reveal the single pristine soul inside, though a lengthy, rigorous period indeed… it simply defies all sense that they couldn’t have been eager and enthralled to receive the Torah.
Kabbalah teaches us that during our time awake, the soul is bound to the body, simply vitalizing us and inspiring our expression, in thought and speech, emotion and deed. On the other hand (and there’s always another hand), when we surrender to sleep, our souls depart and ascend on High, learning Torah with the angels, and basking in their Creator’s Light. Just before we awaken each day, it returns to us. (For this miracle, we ring out in grateful song through the morning blessing of Modeh Ani: “Modeh Ani Lefancha… Shehechezarta Bi Nishmati… – I give thanks before You… for You have returned within me my soul.”)
The Jewish People had worked on and elevated themselves to the zenith of Kedusha (holiness). Still, they undeniably remained flesh-and-blood beings. Their best, they felt, was unsatisfactory. How could they isolate themselves from the sensuality of this corporeal world in a final effort to make themselves “truly spiritual,” before being bound to the Torah, G-d’s innermost will and wisdom? Their solution? Sleep: The experience of the soul severing from the body to ascend higher and higher in a peak of spiritual immersion and renewal and epiphany.
This is mind-boggling. How could this altruism be erroneous? How deep was the wound gouged, that we are still aspiring to make amends over three millennium later along our timeline?
Their offense was not exactly a “sin” and iniquity – an “avon” in Hebrew. Rather, their blunder was a “cheit” – a misjudgment. Their intentions were good, but ‘off-target.’ (Inspired by R’ Manis Friedman in a class he gave, on understanding the nature of Adam and Eve’s ‘sin’ – the Cheit Eitz Hada’as.) We can ask, “Where exactly did the Jewish People go wrong?” It’s serious indeed.
They missed the entire point of Torah and its bestowal.
By rejecting rather than embracing the world’s materiality, they negated the purpose of Torah, a Heavenly ‘blueprint’ to sanctify the physical world! It’s not just coincidence that the majority of the 613 Mitzvot are implemented in the realm of physical action and deed. If the soul and spirituality were involved exclusively, then what why did G-d bother entrusting the Torah to earthly mortals? I am fond of quoting a dialogue between a wise elder Rav in the language of the Talmud with R’ Aaron Moss as a young man: “G-d’s commandments weren’t given to angels.” Of the Torah it is said:
“It is not in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will climb to heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and let us hear it so that we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. (Devarim 12:14)
The Torah is a very practical guide for us: it orchestrates our conquest of our animalistic lusts; our erection of gedarim (fences) to preserve order and integrity; our role as “ohr l’umim – a light to the nations,” ambassadors of morality and truth in the midst of a chaotic world, where G-dliness is more concealed than ever; and our mission to reveal the holiness within our mundane existence, melding the two worlds. However, the Torah’s down-to-earth approach doesn’t contradict its Divine Origin in the least.
On Shavuot, the “laws of nature” were broken: Through Torah, heaven and earth, ruchniyus and gashmiyus, G-d and people (so to speak), could be wed. When the two polar opposites are joined in a cosmic marriage, the Ultimate Truth is revealed: The world runs on Torah. The world is Torah. Torah is Hashem’s wisdom and will – Him “thinking!” And Hashem and His thoughts are One.
To quote R’ Manis Friedman, we “work with the facts” – we were placed in this corporeal world to refine and elevate it – “but aim for the Truth” – to reveal the G-dliness it cloaks, and return all our world to its original Oneness, in a revealed and palpable way. In this world, we bind our willpower to His (and will is even loftier than wisdom, motivating us to do things that don’t even seem logical to our limited minds) in the effort to “spiritualize” the physical world and make it a Dirah Betachtonim, a Dwelling Place in the Lower Realms.
Therefore, we forsake the pure spiritual retreat slumber brings , just one this one night – as our forbears mistakenly opted for – and get our hands into the gritty work with the Gashmiyus, toiling with heart, mind, hands and soul to make it shine an reveal its essence.
So staying up at all hours on this occasion, celebrating and studying the Torah? Not so bizarre after all… In fact, it’s one of the greatest recognitions and revelations of what Torah purely is.
Pass me a slice of cheesecake; we’ve got a long stretch ahead of us. Let’s learn!
—The Messenger Bird