Holiday: Shavuot - In the Midnight Hours

May 16, 2013

  • Jewish Community
  • Jewish Holidays

Rabbi Scott Perlo is the Associate Director of Jewish Programming at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, DC. 

Shavuot is one of those Jewish holidays that got lost. In America, for most of the last century, celebrations of Jewish holidays have revolved around children. Until recently, most parents wouldn’t go to a synagogue for holidays unless their kids had some program. So, almost without exception, the popular Jewish holidays fall within the school year. But Shavuot typically falls in late May or early June – just after school lets out.

Unless you’re real hardcore, it’s not a holiday of which you’ve heard. Which is a shame. It’s a good one; you don’t even have to eat matzah. Shavuot’s meaning is straightforward.* It’s the day on which God gave the Jews the Torah: 1.3 million people, all standing around a not particularly impressive mountain called Sinai, and the voice of the Divine came out of thunder and lightning, speaking the Ten Commandments. Even in our CGI world, the spectacle would have been impressive. We were already a people; we had suffered together in Egypt; we were redeemed together at the first Passover; we knew each other in joy and in pain. But on that day, we became a people with a purpose: “I, God, have called you in justice; I have grabbed you by the hand; I created you, and set you to be a people of covenant, a light to the nations.” (Isaiah 42:6) From that day, we have held the responsibility to carry and live by a book in which is written the eternal message of justice and compassion.

Jews are not alone in this. Everyone has an obligation to the right and the good. But its particular expression through the Torah – that is our birthright and our responsibility. The giving of the Torah happened first thing in the morning. In testament to the goofiness of human nature, the Jews overslept and almost missed the whole thing. The midrash** teaches that God showed up to give the Torah, and Moses had to wake up the whole camp. *** To make up for that embarrassing oversight (it’s a lot worse than missing that 8am meeting with your boss), many Jews have taken on what is now the practice that defines Shavuot. On the evening of the first night of the holiday, we spend all night studying Torah ‘til the sun rises in the east. And in that moment we will be awake, ready to hear God’s voice, and receive wisdom. Then we’ll pass out for the better part of the day.

People will sometimes respond to this unusual practice by commenting that it’s very nice that the party animals (of a strange sort) want to stay up all night, but that they prefer to be tucked comfortably in bed, thank you. However, there is magic in those midnight hours. Before the invention of modern lighting, people would regularly wake at midnight for study and reflection.**** Maimonides, a medieval Spanish philosopher and physician, teaches that a person acquires most of her wisdom at night. In the wee hours of the morning, the secret self emerges. Hidden truths manifest. Revelation becomes possible. If you can manage it, this Tuesday night, May 14th, find your way to a tikkun – that’s what we call this holy all-nighter. But even if you can’t make it this time, know that the experience of engaging Torah study is radically egalitarian. Everyone is capable; everyone is welcome. Teachers help a lot, but they’re not required. All this kind of study requires is a good book (Elie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire would be my personal recommendation), perhaps a likeminded friend or two, and the willingness to open up to what’s on the page. Something essential just might be waiting for you, ready to be revealed.

*As much as anything in Judaism is straightforward. Which isn’t much.

** A kind of commentary on the Torah, dating back ~2000 years. Considered canonical, and near importance to the Torah itself

***Shir haShirim Rabbah 1:57

**** Check out a really fascinating book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, by A. Roger Ekirch