By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel -
In honor of Shavuot, I would like to share some thoughts about Torah study.
As mentioned in a previous article, Shavuot has no unique mitzvot as part of its observance. No matzah, no shofar, no lulav. But there is a very widespread custom to remain awake all night long on Shavuot studying Torah.
The classic reason given for this custom is because on the morning of the day God was going to give the Torah, the Jewish people were fast asleep. They overslept that morning. God was there all ready to give us the Torah, but we weren’t there. Moses had to wake everyone up to get us quickly to “class,” so to speak.
So, to make up for this mishap, we stay up all night until sunrise, at which time the morning prayers are recited and the story of the Revelation along with the Ten Commandments is read, allowing us to relive and rectify these events.
But the question is asked: Why do we stay up all night when it is so hard? Indeed, many of the stay-up-all-night folk are asleep in the pews of the synagogue by 2 a.m. Even those who successfully remain awake all night usually doze off sometime during the morning prayers. Why are we doing the essentially impossible? (Well, impossible for most of us over 45!)
The answer is because Shavuot is a love story. It’s our anniversary. The anniversary of the day we received the Torah, became the Chosen People, and began our mission as a light unto the nations. Our sages teach us that the Revelation at Sinai was a wedding. God was the groom and the Jewish people were His bride.
It goes even further: We are told that God held Mount Sinai over the heads of the Jewish people (though this is actually not a very flattering story…we’ll save it for another time), and this represented the Jewish wedding canopy. Bride, groom, wedding canopy, officiating rabbi (Moses) – all the ingredients of wedding! In fact, some congregations read a special Ketubah, a wedding contract between God and the Jewish people as part of the Shavuot service.
By studying Torah, we work on our marriage. We get closer to Him. When we pray, we talk to God, but when we study the Torah, God talks to us. The Torah is not just law. Not just dos and don’ts; rather, it is wisdom, history, knowledge, morals, ethics. It changes those who study it.
On Shavuot we “renew our vows” and recommit to Torah study. We won’t always succeed in our studies. And we’ll sometimes get lazy and we’ll sometimes fall asleep. But on Shavuot night, we give it our best shot. We try staying up even though few of us will be successful. We want to show God that our heart is in the right place. By studying His Torah we learn how to become a better “spouse” and a better person.
Indeed, with our Torah study on Shavuot, whether all night long or anytime throughout the hours of the holiday, we are showing God that we are a worthy spouse even though we may mess up at times.
Maybe this is why Shavuot has no special mitzvah associated with it. Perhaps it is a holiday to simply chill out with God and allow our relationship to grow by devoting our free time to Torah study. By not worrying about how many times we shook this or that, how much of a food we ate, or that we might miss the shofar blowing, we can better focus the day on nothing but God.