As they do every year, in shuls and homes throughout the world, Yidden will stay awake on the first night of Shavuos. Presumably because it is Motzoei Shabbos, some who in other years were unable to keep their eyelids from closing will find that the tranquility of Shabbos will give them the fortitude they need to stay up all night.
Some will learn a sefer of their choosing, either on their own or with a chavrusa; some will attend mesmerizing shiurim. Many others will recite the Tikun Leil Shavuos that was established by the Arizal, which includes selected parts of Tanach, Zohar, all the 613 mitzvos and — depending on the custom — selections of Mishnayos.
The common denominator is that they will do their utmost to stay awake and engage in the study of Torah on this holy night as all of Am Yisrael celebrates Mattan Torah.
The best-known reason for this ancient custom — one that is already alluded to in Zohar — is the one stated by the Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim 594) which cites a Midrash which teaches that when Hakadosh Baruch Hu came — so to speak — to Har Sinai in the early morning, Bnei Yisrael were sleeping. In order to rectify this incident, we stay awake each year on this night.
At first glance, it seems incomprehensible that an entire nation — a Dor Dei’ah that included neviim, zekeinim, and leaders of the Sanhedrin — filled with enormous anticipation for this most glorious pivotal moment in history — should go to sleep the night before and actually oversleep in the morning.
One would have assumed that many members of Klal Yisrael would have already been so eager to take part in the momentous experience of Mattan Torah that they would have stayed awake all night, eagerly waiting for dawn to arrive.
Therefore, it is apparent that this was not an ordinary slumber brought on by lying down in a comfortable bed, and did not show a lack of excitement for what the morrow would bring. The deep sleep they experienced was bestowed on them by Shamayim and they were powerless to avoid it.
Why, indeed, did Hashem see fit to do this?
The Arugas Habosem suggests that this was in order to teach Klal Yisrael a crucial lesson in avodas Hashem.
The Ribbono shel Olam had given Bnei Yisrael 49 days of Sefirah, a lofty period of purification and self-rectification. They had spent the last three days in intense preparation, and with every fiber of their beings they sought to ready themselves to receive the Torah.
The members of Bnei Yisrael had concluded that they were indeed spiritually ready for Kabbalas haTorah. In reality, however, one who thinks he is really ready and worthy hasn’t even begun to prepare himself.
Therefore, in His infinite wisdom, Hakadosh Baruch Hu caused them to fall into a deep sleep. When morning had arrived, and the appointed time for Kabbalas haTorah had come, Hashem was k’vayachol waiting for them at Har Sinai — and Bnei Yisrael were sleeping.
When they awoke and realized they had overslept, their hearts were shattered and they were filled with deep feelings of humility. They saw the fact that they had overslept as indicative of their weak spiritual state. In contrast to the confidence they had felt the night before, now they were certain that, in fact, they hadn’t even started to prepare themselves for Kabbalas haTorah.
These feelings of humility, of submission, were the most fitting preparation of all for Kabbalas haTorah.
In order for us to internalize this crucial lesson for all generations, we stay up all night of the first night of Shavuos — for it is imperative that we recognize that in order for us to merit Kabbalas haTorah, we must fill our hearts with humility and hachanah.
Few contemporary individuals so symbolized the study of Torah as Hagaon Harav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zt”l. Throughout his long life, his hasmadah and selfless dedication to Torah was legendary every day of the year.
During Shloshes Yemei Hagbalah, he would cut down on the amount of time he would see vistors seeking responses to halachic inquries, in order to spend even more time learning.
Shavuos — the Yom Tov of Kabbalas haTorah — was a highlight of the year for Harav Elyashiv.
His family was taken aback, however, to find that on Shavuos night, when all of Klal Yisrael stayed up all night learning, Rav Elyashiv would actually go to sleep at the same time he did every night — and arise, as always, hours before dawn.
“I made a cheshbon that if I stay up all night, in the end I would lose out on 15 minutes of learning Torah,” Rav Elyashiv explained.
Rav Elyashiv was clearly cognizant of the great benefits of staying up all night on Shavuos, but was unwilling to lose out on 15 minutes of learning!
The next day, when those who had stayed up at night sought to catch up on their sleep, Rav Elyashiv learned from after Vasikin until the midday seudah, and immediately after the seudah until Minchah — and from after Minchah until Maariv.
Few if any of us have an inkling of the hasmadah of Rav Elyashiv, and we do adhere to the minhag of staying awake all night. But we can and should be inspired by the lesson taught by this Gadol and make the most of every moment on this most sacred night.