Sleepless on Shavuot: Let My People Learn

May 22, 2017Abigail Pogrebin

Dont Miss Abigail Pogrebin at  URJ Biennial 2017I was never great at pulling all-nighters in college.

But this year I’m pulling one on Shavuot (“weeks”), which celebrates the completion of the “weeks” between Passover and Shavuot – when God gave the Torah to the Israelites on Mount Sinai.

I’ll be at the JCC in Manhattan for its modern iteration of the Tikkun Leil Shavuot (Rectification of the Night of Shavuot), a jam-packed smorgasbord of learning and celebrating from 10 at night until 5 in the morning.

Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, director of the JCC’s Center for Jewish Living, explains that the concept of an all-nighter. Shavuot immersion started with the Kabbalists in the sixteenth century, but some trace it back to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi), one of Akiva’s few righteous students, who is believed to have sat and studied all night before Shavuot.

Growing up, I did not understand how huge this Torah-giving moment was, how it marks, really, the beginning of Judaism. After decades of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites survived in the desert with little food and water, trusting Moses without knowing for sure that he could be trusted. They came to the foot of Sinai, were supposed to wake up early to receive the Torah, and then they actually overslept. According to rabbinic commentary, Moses had to wake the people, which is why we now mark Shavuot by staying up all night – to make sure we’re up first thing in the morning.

In a cinematic crescendo, the Ten Commandments were proclaimed by God in a bracing crash of lightning and thunder. Shavuot represents the denouement – referred to as Revelation in our prayer books. Very soon after the thunder moment, we signed on, accepting the law and agreeing to live by it. This is when we graduated from being an enslaved to an autonomous people, no longer at the mercy of others.

It helps to understand the weight of this symbolism before I start the observance itself, especially because there aren’t many observances. It is celebrated over two days, with candles lit on both evenings. No work is performed, and only dairy foods are eaten, since – according to one explanation – kosher laws were new on Mount Sinai and the Israelites hadn’t yet kashered their cooking pots, so they played it safe by sticking to dairy.

On the first day of Shavuot, we are supposed to hear the Ten Commandments read in the synagogue, but the main event is the learning binge the night before. It’s the thing to do on the eve of receiving the Torah: stay up all night studying it, or celebrate it creatively. 

Shavuot originated in the Bible as a harvest holiday, celebrated 49 days after Passover. It eventually became associated with giving of the law on Mount Sinai, a dubious connection, writes Rabbi Michael Strassfeld in The Jewish Holidays:

“Nowhere in the Bible is any link made between Sinai and Shavuot. Indeed, even the biblical account of the Revelation at Sinai does not connect it with Shavuot.”

So how did they get connected?

After the Second Temple was destroyed, priestly sacrificial offerings – meat, grain, wine, and fruits – ceased, and the rabbis began to link the harvest holidays (Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot) to historical events (Exodus, Sinai, desert wandering). To give Shavuot more staying power, they hitched it to the revelation at Mount Sinai.

I wonder: “Is Revelation possible? Really, today?” I call Rabbi Irwin Kula and ask how he would explain to the vast majority of liberal Jews, who don’t celebrate Shavuot, why it has urgency today? His reply: “I always ask the question, ‘What do we hire a holiday to do for us?’ In other words, Shavuot was invented because it was responding to a genuine, existential yearning that people had. So what’s the yearning to which Shavuot is a response?”

I like his answer. “It’s the yearning to know what it is we’re really supposed to do with our lives.”

Shavuot brings us back to our contract with God and each other, and to the question: “What am I supposed to do with my life?” There’s a “supposed to” for each of us; we just need to discover it.

“Stay the Night” – the name of the JCC’s Tikkun – is a whirlwind of classes, debate, cooking, music and dancing, which ends finally on the roof with a concert at 4:15 a.m. I cannot deny feeling like an Ironman Jew for having stayed the course. In the elevator down to the lobby, I feel full, energized by the Tikkun’s bustle and by its testament to Jewish vibrancy – 3,400 people had come to study, question, argue, dance, sing, and eat a cheesecake.  

As I climb into bed, my husband and kids are sleeping and the sun is rising. After such a marathon day, I need to rest my mind. But it is racing.

This article is adapted and reprinted from My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew, with permission from Fig Tree Books LLC.

Abigail Pogrebin will be a featured speaker at the Union for Reform Judaism's 2017 Biennial in Boston, December 6-10, 2017.

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