The holiday of Shavuot is distinct among the major festivals of Jewish life in that it has no obvious distinctive ritual elements. Whereas Pesach has its seder and marror, and Sukkot has its, well, sukkot, Shavuot is not given any particular unique commandments, not in its Biblical textual source, nor in the halachic sources.
In the Rabbinic texts, however, this holiday was considered to be related to the date of the giving of the Torah at Sinai (although even that is somewhat problematic; the Talmud calculates the actual event as being the day after Shavuot).
Given that the holiday was felt to reflect the giving of the Torah, it became customary in many communities to study Torah all night and then read the text relating to Sinai in the morning service at dawn. The source for this is found in the Midrash (Shir hashirim Rabba 1:57 and Pirkei D’Rav Elazar 40), where it explains that the night prior to Sinai was short, and sleep was sweet, so the people of Israel slept that whole night. The halachists (Magen Avraham 494) understood this as a mistake on the part of the people, that they should have been awake in anticipation, and to rectify this, we stay up all night each year on that night.
R. Zadok HaCohen of Lublin felt that the source material did not support the idea that there was a sin committed by the people nor that staying awake is meant as a punishment or paybck; there is no suggestion in the Midrashic texts that an error was committed by this sleep. In fact, in a reading echoing the Lacanian inversion of the Freudian approach to dreams versus reality (which we dealt with at length in Perashat Vayetze), R. Zadok flips this reading on its head. In short, Freud argues that dream work is a defense mechanism by which continued sleep is ensured by repressing thoughts that may be disturbing to the individual, whereas Lacan argues that the opposite is the case–during dream activity we come face to face with our Real, whereas during the day we are able to maintain all our defenses in order to get through the day. This same Lacanian inversion is operative in R. Zadok’s reading.
R. Zadok presents a set of postive alternative readings of this sleep. The people knew that they would be receiving a whole new code of living, their entire conception of life and destiny would be altered, but they had no way of knowing what this new mission would entail. Thus, they chose total disengagement with the reality they had known until this moment, and abandoned the world to sleep, an act of self-annihilation, as it were, leaving the world in the hands of Gd. On the other hand, continues R. Zadok, there is more than negation here, for the Midrash describes their sleep as “sweet”.
There are two aspects to any transmission–there is the data itself, and the readiness to receive it. The people knew there would be a large body of information transferred to them, a new set of responsibilities with a new world outlook. What they wanted to achieve by sleep was the meaning behind, the anticipation and joy that ought accompany this new revelation. They wanted to wake up transformed, and there is something about the night that has this ability.
We are told that Abraham and Yaakov had significant revelations at night, as “dreams,” dreams that were more real than their awake reality. King Solomon achieves his greatness as response to a dream. There is a clarity at night that allows a more profound understanding. The Talmud in Eruvin 65. points outs that “the night was created for study”. Perhaps the day, in which the sun casts its overpowering light, blinds one to deeper analysis; metaphorically the biblical text is referred to as “day,” for there is only one text, but the “oral law,” which is the human encounter and transformation of the text into lived experience, of which traditionally there are “seventy readings” to every text, is compared to night, to the moon, which reflects light in variegated degrees.
In a sense, this night is the greater moment, for the Jewish people are also compared to the moon, in which every individual’s life–challenges are meant to embody yet another possible reading of the text. This sublime beauty was the goal of the deep sleep that night, and thus it is called sweet–this reading hinges on a pun in Hebrew–the meaning behind the commandments are traditionally referred to as “taamei hamitzvot,” with the term for meaning, “taam” also being the word for taste; hence the night before was meant for acquisition of the sweetness=meaning of Sinai.
This commemoration of anticipation, of Shavuot reenacting the being in “the position to receive,” is developed by the Derech Hamelech (known also as the Piasetzner, or the Aish Kodesh). He begins with a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov based on a verse in the song that ends the book of Devarim. The verse reads, “let my teachings rain down like the dew,” which the Besht takes to mean that Torah is like dew–if you don’t plant good seeds, you will grow weeds. What you bring to Torah influences what you will gain from it. Even the most profound spiritual message can be subverted if the recipient is corrupt within.
Thus, the DH explains an odd Midrash (Shemot Rabba 47), which states that Gd taught Moshe at Sinai all readings that would be proposed in the future, even the questions that a student asks his teacher. Shouldn’t Moshe have been taught the answers, rather than the questions, which seem more important? Rather, answers the DH, the priorities are reversed, the question is in some ways greater than the answer.
In a question, the student reveals his or her desire to get an answer; this yearning to reach a greater level of understanding is in some sense more critical than the answer obtained. The will involved in moving from the state of uncertainty to one of clarity is that which the holiday of Shavuot is meant to commemorate. This moment is not meant to end once the laws are given and the Torah revealed; what matters most is the attempt to continuously seek the deeper meanings through which humanity can realize all the different forms of goodness that lie within and actualize them within the context of society.
I will suggest, based on these readings, an explanation of another custom associated with Shavuot, and that is the reading of the book of Ruth. The book of Ruth tells the tale of a Moabite woman who follows her mother in law, under tragic circumstances, back to the land of Judah, and accepts Torah. At the end of this pastoral little book, we are told that Ruth is a direct ancestor of King David and the Davidic line, meant to culminate in the Messiah, a symbol of world transformation and redemption.
There are many reasons given in the halachic and mystical literature for choosing this work to be read in the synagogue on Shavuot, but following our reading thus far I propose another–if the will to receive is in some sense critical to the reception of the message, if the inner spirit determines the greatness of the outer message, then that inner capacity is not limited by anything, not even genetics. Hence, Ruth’s yearning for truth and spirituality, even though she came from the “outside,” is adequate to bring about world transformation and redemption.
We see, then, that Shavuot is meant to celebrate the will to receive, almost more so than the actual message (hinted at in the Talmudic ambiguity with regards to the actual day of the event). According to R. Zadok, now that the Torah was given, we need to stay up all night studying in order to recall the moment of yearning, to reenact the sensation of wanting to receive anew, to approach the receiving of Torah as though it were being given for the first time the very next morning.
May this yearning, this will to be able to ask the right questions, be our guide as we face the political and theological crises of our day.