A man came to Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, shortly before Shavuos one year. “I have a question for the Rav,” he said. “I know that the minhag is to stay up to learn on Shavuos night, but I am not sure it is really worth it.”
Harav Shlomo Zalman looked at him quizzically. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well, if I stay up to learn at night, I will end up being able to learn less over Yom Tov than if I would go to sleep. If I do sleep I will also be more rested, and besides being able to learn more, I will also learn better over the rest of Shavuos.”
But despite the questioner’s well thought-out rationale, Harav Shlomo Zalman still told him to stay up to learn on Shavuos night. “It is important for your family — your children, especially — to see you staying up all night to learn,” said Harav Shlomo Zalman. “That trumps whatever justification you may have for going to sleep.”
We all know the reason we stay up all night on Shavuos. Chazal tell us that when Hashem came to give us the Torah, Bnei Yisrael were still sleeping. In order to “fix” this, we stay up all night learning — preparing for Mattan Torah, as it were.
But a question remains. Why were the Yidden asleep?
According to some commentators (Harav Tzadok Hakohen, Harav Schwab, and others), it goes without saying that the Dor Hamidbar didn’t simply sleep in. Rather, their mistake arose from a misunderstanding of exactly how Hakadosh Baruch Hu was going to give the Torah. The Yidden thought that since all neviim (other than Moshe Rabbeinu) received nevuah through a dream, Mattan Torah would be through a dream as well. So they did not, chas v’shalom, sleep through the time that the Torah was supposed to be given. They were asleep precisely because it was the time the Torah was supposed to be given.
But if sleeping was Bnei Yisrael’s way of preparing to accept the Torah, why is it something we need to rectify annually by staying up all night?
I heard two possible explanations from talmidei chachamim, each of which provides an important and distinct lesson that can be used to help us get the most we can out of the Yom Tov that is upon us.
Perhaps the transgression of Bnei Yisrael was not simply that they overslept. The real issue here was that they were able to fall asleep in the first place! The thought of receiving the Torah the next day should have occupied their minds to such an extent that sleep should have been impossible.
Harav Mendel Kaplan, zt”l, expressed a similar thought (Rav Mendel and His Wisdom, p. 109): “It used to be that people didn’t need an alarm clock to wake up to say Tikkun Chatzos. They thought so much about the exile that they couldn’t sleep at night, so what could they do but get up and cry over the destruction and say Tikkun Chatzos. It’s wonderful not to be able to fall asleep at night because you can’t get your mind off what you’re learning… If you can do that, then you’ll get a special gift of insight from Heaven.”
If someone were in possession of a winning lottery ticket, you can rest assured they would not sleep well the night before they went to collect their winnings. The same is true about Kabbalas HaTorah. We therefore stay up on Shavuos night to show how much our minds are occupied with Torah, how it is the very essence of our being. We display how excited we are about learning Torah, so much so that we are unable to go to sleep.
There is another possible explanation. There is a well-known comment that is often attributed to Harav Baruch Ber Leibowitz, the Kamenitzer Rosh Yeshivah and author of Birkas Shmuel. “If I had set out to become Harav Baruch Ber, I would never have become Harav Baruch Ber,” he is said to have remarked to his students. “I set out to become Harav Akiva Eiger. By trying to become Harav Akiva Eiger, I managed to become Harav Baruch Ber.”
Perhaps the actual mistake of Bnei Yisrael in preparing for a nevuah that would come via a dream was in accepting the limitation that they would not receive the Torah on a higher level of nevuah than that of all neviim. Harav Schwab points out that in reality, Hashem gave the Torah on a much higher level — that of limud haTorah, Torah study. It goes without saying that the proper approach to Torah is striving for greatness on the highest level possible; if we don’t try for that, we are severely limiting our own growth.
So we stay up to learn on Shavuos night to show that, while we might not be people who are on the level of remaining awake all night to learn, it is an objective we are striving to reach, and only by that kind of goal-oriented approach can we grow as we are supposed to.
At a time when the ideal of dedicating one’s entire self to the study of Torah is under attack from forces that present themselves as being from within, these are important ideas to take with us this Yom Tov. Torah is meant to consume our entire being, to occupy our every waking moment. And despite the fact that we might not all be on that level, we must recognize that limud haTorah itself is the highest connection to Hashem that is possible. It is something that we all must strive for, in order to fulfill our own personal potential.