They did it so that we could do it
Rabbi Dovid Samuels
There is a widespread custom to stay awake learning Torah the whole night of Shavuos. Although this is not such a big feat in the northern hemisphere, it certainly tests us down here in the Southern hemisphere. The commentators explain that this custom is based on a very peculiar event that took place on the eve of us receiving the Torah. The verse says: “Moshe took the people out to meet Hashem.” Where were we, and why did we need to be ‘taken out’? The answer is that we were actually asleep at that time, right up until the second hour of daylight, and Moshe Rabbeinu had to wake us up for the great event of Matan Torah. For this reason, we stay awake the whole night of Shavuos, to “fix up” that mistake of sleeping in.
Now, every eye that reads these words should be totally confused at how such a great generation could possibly sleep in on the most important day ever; the event that was the purpose of creation itself! Not only that, but they had been preparing for 50 days since the exodus from Egypt for this very moment. How could they possibly have allowed this to happen? Was there not one person who woke up on time? We have all heard the stories of Jews who woke up early on the morning of 9/11 to daven selichos and were saved from being in the World Trade towers. But could sleeping late on the day of Matan Torah be anything but regretful?o
The Arugas Habosem, the Pupa Rebbe, gives an extraordinary explanation which is relevant to each of us to this day. He first reminds us of the teaching of Chazal that every single Jewish soul was present at Har Sinai on that great day; both the souls of the Jews alive at that time, and those of the Jews that would be born in every generation that followed. That being the case, the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people had to be done in such a way that every single Jew in every single generation would be able to accept and fulfil the responsibility of keeping the Torah. Hashem saw all of the souls of the Jewish people, and He saw future generations that would be born into a frantic world of confusion, a generation of constant distractions, of financial pressures, social issues, and health concerns. The Jews alive at the time of the receiving of the Torah suffered from none of those things. Their food and shelter were provided for them in the forms of the Manna and the clouds of glory. They were protected from their enemies and they had calmness of spirit to connect constantly to the Creator. However, there would come a generation who, because of the great stresses that they would have to endure, would say: “No wonder that generation was able to accept the responsibility of keeping the Torah, they had it easy back then! They had all the time in the world to learn and observe the laws of the Torah. That’s alright for them, but we don’t have that luxury!” Not every generation would be as tranquil. Not every generation would feel as though they could, or even should, commit to the Torah.
So, to prevent us from mistakenly thinking that the Torah ‘isn’t for us in our generation’, Hashem placed a slumber upon the generation of Har Sinai, and sunk them into a deep sleep. Knowing full well the gravity of situation, the Jews surely would not have overslept, were it not for some Divine intervention. When they were awoken the next morning, they hurriedly got ready for the big event. They were late, and Hashem was waiting! The confusion and haste which must have ensued is hard to imagine. Still escaping the haziness of a deep sleep, their calm preparations over the last 50 days disintegrated in an instant. There was no worse time for them to receive the Torah, but Hashem was waiting, and they had a job to do. They mustered whatever powers they could in themselves to do what needed to be done, against all odds. But this was all orchestrated by Hashem so that every Jew in the future, no matter how exhausted and bewildered, can trust in himself that he is capable of receiving and committing to the Torah, just like they did that morning at Har Sinai.
Another perplexing thing happened that day. As we were standing by the mountain, Hashem raised it over our heads and told us that if we do not accept His Torah, we will be buried there. The commentators ask why this coercion was necessary, for we had all already proclaimed Na’aseh v’Nishma – that we would fulfil all of the Torah willingly. But because of the terrifying sight at Har Sinai – the thunder and lightning, fire and smoke – we might have gone back on our commitment, so Hashem compelled us to accept, to avoid any potential change of heart. A question, however, still remains: why did Hashem make Matan Torah so scary, if it might lead us to refuse to accept?
Based on the idea of the Arugas Habosem, the answer is clear. The loud sounds and terrifying sights were all there to add even more to the confusion of the people. They were groggy from sleep, late for a meeting with Hashem, frightened by an awesome display, and no doubt disturbed that on the greatest day of their lives nothing had gone the way they had planned. But something amazing happened: they received the Torah. Despite every excuse to back out, despite the perceived inability to do anything productive at that moment, they nevertheless did exactly what they were meant to do. They committed to Hashem and His Torah, no matter what. They might not have accepted it as peacefully and willingly as they had at first planned, but the obligation of a Jew to the Torah is not dependent on tranquillity and clarity. This lesson had to be taught to us by the generation at Har Sinai, so that in 2021, where there is no shortage of excuses, we could find strength in the fact that commitment to Torah is a necessity for everyone, no matter in what situation we find ourselves.
To this day, we keep the custom of staying awake on the night of Shavuos, to “fix up” our mistake of sleeping in. We made far greater mistakes in the desert than this one, however, so why don’t we have a custom to fix up the sin of the golden calf, or that of the spies? And even though some people do perform certain acts to rectify those sins, they have not been accepted as widely as the custom of staying up all night. Now that we understand that the generation of Har Sinai did nothing wrong by sleeping late, rather it was a slumber induced by Hashem Himself so that weaker generations in the future would not use excuses to absolve themselves of the responsibility that comes with accepting the Torah, it is specifically because of those later generations that this event happened the way it did in the first place. So, it is us, in 2021, who might experience that fleeting thought of “it’s too hard”, who need to “fix up” the fact that our ancestors were forced to receive the Torah amidst confusion and franticness.
This is echoed by the wording of a song we sing on Shabbos day: “And they all came into the covenant as one; They all said Na’aseh v’Nishma together; They opened their mouths and responded, ‘Hashem is One’; Blessed is the One who gives strength to the exhausted.”
At first, the statement of giving strength to the exhausted seems a little bit out of place. But now the explanation is apparent. As we all arrived to enter into the covenant of the Torah together, we all proclaimed that we would fulfil it by saying Na’aseh v’Nishma. But Hashem had orchestrated the events so that we would be very confused, by the unexpected sleep and the terrifying sights and sounds of Har Sinai, so He had to coerce us into reaccepting the Torah amidst a lack of calmness. This we did by proclaiming “Hashem is One” – which is from Shema, the war cry of the Jewish people that signifies our devotion to Hashem even in the most difficult situations. Why was this necessary? Because there would come an exhausted generation that might feel that this is all too much to bear. But if we realise that the whole receiving of the Torah was done amidst difficulty, that should strengthen us to be able to make that commitment against all odds. And so we sing joyously: “Boruch hanosein layo’ef ko’ach – Blessed is the One who gives strength to the exhausted.”