For days on end you have been engrossed in a book whose pages throb with vivid characters ensnared in a thrilling, enthralling plot. You reach page 588 — two pages to go. Your heart is beating wildly, as you approach the climax of the story and a (shocking? inspiring?) revelation about people whose lives have become more real and dear to you than the "real" characters populating the world outside of your book. But instead of turning the page, you pause, lay the book aside, and close your eyes. No, not yet.

You have spent hours running a marathon, every muscle, every neuron of your brain concentrated on the next step, the next sprint, the next yard. Now the finish line is in sight; a few more surges of body and mind and you are there. But at this very moment, your mind goes blank. For a second, you stop thinking, stop concentrating, cease all conscious effort, allowing a wave of nothingness to engulf you. Only then do you make that final dash to your goal.

You have spent weeks laboring on what is certainly the most important project of your career, working eighteen, twenty hours a day, squeezing the utmost of knowledge, creativity and expertise from yourself and your colleagues. You are now in the final phase of the project. There are still a good few days of work ahead, but the last item on the checklist has been considered and debated, and a plan has been sketched. You wake up in the morning, pick up the phone, and much to your own and everyone else's surprise leave the following message at the office: "I won't be coming in today. See you all tomorrow morning. I'm going to spend the next 24 hours... doing nothing."

That is what the Children of Israel did on the first day of the month of Sivan of the year 2448 from creation (1313 BCE), a week before they received the Torah at Mount Sinai. They did nothing.

(The Talmud analyzes the account given in Exodus 19 of that crucial week, and derives a detailed timeline of what occurred on each of the six days from the day that the Israelites arrived at Sinai until the they received the Torah on Sivan 6. On Sivan 1, says the Talmud, "they did nothing.")

This is very strange. For the Jews were in the midst of a marathon, utterly consumed by the most important race of their lives, indeed of their history as a people.

Six weeks earlier they had been liberated from Egypt. At that time, they were told that in 50 days' time, G‑d will reveal Himself to them and give them the Torah — the Divine blueprint of Creation and the "marriage contract" of their eternal bond with Him.

They were told that their road to Mount Sinai consisted of 49 steps: 49 days, each devoted to the refinement and perfection of another of the 49 powers of the human soul. G‑d had lifted them out of their physical, moral and spiritual enslavement by depraved Egypt. Now the onus was upon them to make themselves worthy of entering into a covenant with Him, and to elevate themselves to the state that would allow that covenant to take hold in their souls.

The Jews understood that if they failed to reach Sinai, their exodus from Egypt would be rendered meaningless. Of what use is it to be freed from Pharaoh's yoke, if it is only to be cast adrift in the maelstrom of history, to be subjugated in another hundred or thousand years' time to some other Pharaoh, some other enemy's persecutions, some other era's neurosis, some other generation's angst?

The Jews understood that the gift of freedom was far too precious to be squandered on a temporary respite from hard labor with mortar and bricks. They understood that the only true actualization of this gift from Above is if it brings them to Sinai and binds them to their infinite G‑d — a bound which will guarantee that they remain intrinsically free no matter what forces seek to overwhelm their bodies and souls in the centuries and millennia to come.

So they counted the days, polished their souls, and climbed the steps to Sinai — an exercise we reenact each year with our 49-day "Counting of the Omer" from Passover to Shavuot (the Hebrew word for "counting", sefirah, also means to illuminate, to make shine).

And then, as they entered the seventh week of their quest, with the summit in sight and the most intense stages of the preparation still before them, they spend a full day doing nothing!

Says the Lubavitcher Rebbe: their "doing nothing" was perhaps the most important preparation of all. If a person is merely striving for his personal best, then a methodical progression with a constant eye on the goal will get him there. But when we aim for a supra-human achievement — when we wish to strive to connect to something greater than ourselves and attain something that transcends our natural abilities and potentials — we must "empty" ourselves to allow that greater reality to fill us.

Yes, we must do our utmost, harnessing the fullness of everything we have and are to the attainment of the goal. If we don't, we will never get there. But there comes a point — when the goal is in sight and the most crucial stretch is still before us — that we must surrender to the nothingness in ourselves.

And from this nothingness we sprint to the finish line.