Saturday night begins the holiday of Shavuos, the day when we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
There is a common custom, observed in many Jewish communities, to spend all of Shavuos night awake, studying Torah, preparing to receive it in the morning. This custom traces its roots to a Medrash which says that on the morning of the Revelation at Sinai, Moshe (Moses) had to go from tent to tent waking people up, because they had fallen asleep!
My friend and teacher Rabbi Moshe Parnes, Dean of the Community Kollel of Hollywood, Florida, asks the following question: if the Medrash were to tell us that a few people fell asleep, that would be understandable. But what does it mean that everyone had fallen asleep? Some people are naturally “night owls,” while others enjoy rising early. They also knew the importance of the day that lay ahead of them, yet no one had insomnia? No one was awake? It seems impossible.
The Parnes family does not wear Tefillin, phylacteries, throughout holidays, even on the intermediate days (there are different customs about this). He recounted that his great-grandfather, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Parnes, was unable to fall asleep the night following the holidays of Pesach and Sukkos, which last over a week. He was so excited at the prospect of wearing Tefillin again in the morning that he simply could not sleep.
And this, he said, is the answer to his question. The Medrash doesn’t mean that literally everyone was truly asleep, but that they were lacking enthusiasm for the Torah they were about to receive. They were daydreaming, they were distracted, they simply weren’t that excited. And that is what Moshe had to correct, in order for them to truly be able to receive the Torah.
The verse says, “New in the mornings, great is your faithfulness” [Lamentations 3:23]. Each and every day, we should see the Torah as new and exciting. This is all the more true on Shavuos, when the Divine energies of receiving the Torah come to us again. Let us enjoy and rejoice in this holiday… and may we go into it fully awake to what we can acquire!
I can relate with R’ Parnes. I fell on erev Pesach, shattering my femur. I spent 10 days each in the hospital & a rehab. I didn’t have access to my tallis or tefillin. When I finally came home & put on tefillin, after 3 weeks, I felt like a bar mitzvah boy, putting on tefillin for the first time.