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The Holiness of Shavuot Night

by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, New York, 1988

On the night of Shavuot, Jews stay up all night learning the Torah. One of the reasons we stay up all night is because on the night prior to the revelation on Mount Sinai all the Jews went to sleep and had to be awakened by Moshe Rabbeinu. In remembrance of this event, we remain awake all Shavuot night. The Alexandrer Rebbe asks a very interesting question. “How is it possible,” he wonders, “that the Jewish people went to sleep on the night before revelation? After all, we learn from other sources that for forty nine days they prepared themselves spiritually in the deepest possible ways, counting the Omer every night so that they would be ready to receive the Torah. After working so hard to prepare themselves, why should they suddenly falter?

“They slept that night,” the Alexandrer Rebbe answered, “because of their great humility. They had learned humility from Moses who was the most humble man on Earth. On the night before the revelation each family member thought to himself, “G-d will reveal himself to all the Jews but not to me and my family because we really don’t deserve it” All the parents told their children on the night of Shavuot, “let’s not go tomorrow morning to the revelation we will be the only ones who will be sent home by Moses, telling us that we are not ready yet.”

The Alexandrer Rebbe then asks a second question. “Why do we behave as if their decision to sleep that night requires correction. After all, we have just said that their decision to sleep was based on humility, which would seem praiseworthy. Yet we commemorate their action by staying awake as if we were connecting an old mistake. Why should we stay awake if their sleep had such holy meaning?”

The Alexandrer Rebbe explains that what our forefathers did not understand is that no one can prepare himself well enough to actually deserve the Torah. It is solely a gift from heaven. We stay awake all Shavuot night in order to tell ourselves and our children, “It’s true we have not prepared ourselves properly and it’s true that we don’t deserve to receive the Torah but G-d wants to give me a gift and I’d better be there on time.”

Some of our sages explain their decision to sleep in a slightly different way. They say that we can compare our ancestors to a bride and groom. When do a bride and groom most feel like calling off a wedding. A few minutes before the wedding is when a bride and groom suddenly how awesome a marriage is and become frightened. In the same way our ancestors became frightened that the Torah would be too much for them. When we stay up all Shavuot night and learn Torah we give ourselves the strength to be fearless and to face everything that G-d puts in front of us. Let this Shavuot mark a new beginning to give us strength to begin our Yiddishkeit all over again. Let us not flinch from the responsibilities which this gift carries with it. Let us remember that the precious gift of the Torah is given to us not because we deserve it, but because it is indicative of G-d ‘s great love for us.