Sleeping Soundly

The Midrash states1 that the Jews slept the entire night before the giving of the Torah, “because sleep on Shavuos is pleasant and the night is short.... Not even a flea bit them.”

When G‑d came to give them the Torah, He found the Jews in deep slumber, and had to rouse them. This is alluded to in the verse:2 “Why did I come when no one was there? I called, and there was no answer.”

To compensate for the nation’s slumber on the night before the giving of the Torah, it is customary to remain awake on the first night of Shavuos, studying the Torah.3

All the stories in the Torah serve as lessons for us in our Divine service. This is especially true with regard to any story which casts the Jews in an unfavorable light. The Torah is careful not to speak deprecatingly even about a non-kosher animal.4 So if it tells a story which portrays the Jews unfavorably, we can assume that this is done only because a unique lesson can be derived from that story.

The lesson in this case is apparent: that we should compensate for our ancestors’ conduct by staying awake the entire night of Shavuos. To communicate this lesson, however, it would have been enough to summarize the story. The fact that our Sages added phrases such as: “Sleep on Shavuos is pleasant and the night is short.... Not even a flea bit them,” indicates that these particulars contain lessons aside from the one which encourages us to remain awake on Shavuos night.

In Anxious Expectation

It is well known5 that the promise that they would receive the Torah 50 days after their exodus from Egypt awakened a strong desire within the Jews. With great anticipation, they counted the days until the Torah would be given. This is the source for the mitzvah of counting the omer.

Now, if seven weeks beforehand the Jews could hardly wait to receive the Torah, we can assume that their desire increased as they approached the actual date. They knew G‑d was going to give the Torah on the next day. How then was it possible for them to sleep?

Moreover, their counting for 49 days prepared them for G‑d’s great gift. On each of these days they became more refined, and more worthy to receive the Torah. And on each of these 49 days, they drew down one of the 50 Gates of Understanding. Thus on the forty-ninth day, they had completed drawing down the 49 gates — the maximum possible through the Divine service of mortals for the fiftieth gate was to be opened by G‑d at Mt. Sinai.

When one considers that the Jews had a burning desire for the Torah even while under the influence of Egypt’s 49 Gates of Impurity, we can understand how overwhelming this desire must have become by the time they had refined themselves in drawing down the 49 Gates of Understanding,6 making themselves worthy of G‑d’s priceless gift.

With such a great desire, does it make sense that the people would go to sleep?!

We are forced to conclude that even while sleeping, they did not take their minds off the giving of the Torah. Indeed, they went to sleep in preparation for the event.

This is also indicated by the fact that the fleas did not bite them. If going to sleep was a deviation from the Torah, G‑d would not have wrought a miracle to enable them to sleep so soundly. The fact that He did implies that this sleep was also part of the nation’s preparation.

Reaching Upward

To explain: The Alter Rebbe writes7 that no matter how high a level of understanding a person achieves, or how deep an attachment to G‑dliness, since each soul exists within a body, there is no way that a mortal can attain the kind of connection to G‑d that the soul enjoyed in its incorporeal state. The human body simply cannot bear that degree of connection.

When a person sleeps, the soul disengages itself from the body to a certain degree and “ascends” to the spiritual realms,8 leaving only a trace of vitality in the body.9 Therefore the sleeper’s soul can grasp a higher level of G‑dliness than it can while it is awake and functioning within the body.

For this reason, those people who devote themselves arduously to the study of Torah during the day receive revelations regarding their study at night.10 At times, matters left unresolved during the previous day become clear by morning, based on the revelation experienced by the soul while the body was asleep.

This is why the Jews went to sleep before the giving of the Torah. They wanted their souls to become disengaged from the realm of corporeal experience and thus be able to grasp even higher spiritual levels. This, they thought, would better prepare them for the revelations to be experienced at the giving of the Torah.

This is implied by the Midrash’swords: “Sleep on Shavuos is pleasant and the night is short.” The more a person labors to refine himself while awake, when the soul is fully enclothed in a body, the higher the level of revelation experienced during sleep. After the counting of the 49 days, the “night” grew “short”; only a little of the world’s darkness remained. For all the preparatory work had been completed, and the great revelation was imminent. At such a time, “sleep is pleasant,” for very high levels can be reached.

Moreover, the spiritual peaks which the Jews reached by sleeping that night affected their environment to the extent that no other living beings disturbed their slumber.11

The Purpose of the Giving of the Torah

But G‑d was not pleased with the sleep of the Jewish people before their receipt of the Torah, for this was not the proper manner in which to approach the event.

As mentioned on many occasions,12 the giving of the Torah was a new development in comparison to the observance of the mitzvos by the Patriarchs. After the giving of the Torah, the mitzvos would have a permanent effect on the physical substances with which theywere performed, imbuing them with holiness.

The peak of our Divine service is achieved, not by abandoning the body, but by involving it.13 It is through such efforts that a connection is established with G‑d’s essence; this cannot be achieved by a non-corporeal soul. Indeed, the advantage of Divine service carried out within the body is so great that G‑d and the Heavenly Court make themselves dependent on the rulings of a mortal court. G‑d tells us: “You have triumphed over Me, My children,”14 for “the Torah is not in the heavens.”15

Since the purpose of the giving of the Torah was to accentuate the advantage of the Divine service performed while the soul is enclothed within the body, the preparatory service must parallel that objective; not to sleep and rise above the body, but to work with it. (This applies even though, at that time, before the giving of the Torah, there was still a decree separating the material from the spiritual.16 )

No Man Can Remain an Island

There are those who ask: “Why must I have anything to do with the darkness of the world? Why must I become involved with material things? I would rather cut myself off from all that and devote myself to studying Torah and perfecting my Divine service undisturbed by others.”

Such people are saying that they have approached the level of Shavuos, when the “night” — the darkness of our world — is “short.” They want to reach the highest peaks (for “the sleep of Shavuos is sweet”) and not be disturbed by the “fleas” in their environment.

They must know that even before the Torah was given — indeed, on the very day it was given — such an approach was contrary to G‑d’s intent. And indeed, we are still compensating for this error today, as we strive to make a dwelling for G‑d in this lower world. Surely, this applies after the giving of the Torah, when our efforts must involve setting aside time to share with other Jews, even if they are on a lower level. And we must realize that we ourselves will also benefit from this sharing, as we are taught: “From my students, [I received] more than from all others.”17

This is the reason we do not sleep on Shavuos, the night before we receive the Torah. It is not merely to compensate for the shortcoming of our ancestors. It is because staying awake is part of the preparation for receiving the Torah.

The proper approach is to involve ourselves with the body, the animal soul, and one’s portion in the world. In this manner, one prepares oneself to receive the Torah with a joy that continues throughout the year.

(Adapted from Sichos Chag HaShavuos, 5722)

A Cherished Day

My revered father-in-law, the Rebbe, relates18 that the Baal Shem Tov cherished the second day of Shavuos. Every year on the second day he would hold a special feast and linger with his chassidim.19

The Maggid of Mezeritch, the Baal Shem Tov’s successor, explained the reason for the Baal Shem Tov’s behavior. The second day of Shavuos was the first complete 24-hour day after the Jews received the Torah. The Maggid would add: “In particular, this is true according to the opinion of Rabbi Yossi,20 who maintains that the Torah was given on the seventh of Sivan. This is a wondrous dimension.”21

On the surface, the two rationales given by the Maggid are contradictory. If the day is so dear because it was the first day after the giving of the Torah, then according to Rabbi Yossi, this dearness should characterize the eighth of Sivan? But if the dearness results from the fact that the Torah was given on that day (according to the Sages who maintain — as the Alter Rebbe rules in his Shulchan Aruch22 — that the Torah was given on the sixth day), it is the first day of Shavuos which should be cherished?

Phase Two

The cherished nature of the first 24 hours after the holiday of Shavuos can be explained as follows: As mentioned above, the giving of the Torah empowered every Jew to refine and elevate the world.23

In actuality, however, these efforts began after the giving of the Torah. The giving itself was a revelation from above — “And G‑d descended on Mount Sinai,”24 independent of man’s efforts.

Man’s labor of refinement, which was the fundamental purpose of the giving of the Torah, began after that event. This explains the dearness of the second day of Shavuos. On this day began man’s endeavors to elevate the material.

This is reflected in the fact that the second phase of the dynamic — Moshe’s ascent of Mount Sinai to receive the physical tablets of the Law (symbolic of the elevation of the material realm) — began on the seventh of Sivan.25

Moshe’s Initiative

Based on the above, we can also appreciate why according to Rabbi Yossi, who maintains that the giving of the Torah took place on the seventh of Sivan, the seventh is a cherished day. Even according to his approach, the phase of ascent began on the seventh of Sivan.

To explain: Our Sages26 state that Rabbi Yossi maintains that Moshe “added another day (of preparation for the giving of the Torah) on his own initiative, and the Holy One, blessed be He, consented.”

G‑d told the Jews to refrain from marital relations for two days, the fourth and fifth of Sivan,27 and so the giving of the Torah could have taken place on the sixth. Moshe, however, added another day on his own initiative, telling the Jews to separate for three days.28 G‑d accepted this, and thus it was not until the seventh of Sivan that the Torah was given.

Thus, according to Rabbi Yossi, the designation of the seventh of Sivan as the day of the giving of the Torah depended on the willingness of the Jewish people to add another day of preparation. Thus it reflects mortal efforts toward ascent.

For this reason, according to Rabbi Yossi, the day of the giving of the Torah itself is cherished, while according to the Sages it is the day after the giving which is cherished. And thus Rabbi Yossi considers the seventh day of Sivan — the second day of the holiday of Shavuos — a cherished day.29

Indeed, according to Rabbi Yossi, the dearness of the seventh of Sivan is even greater than it is according to the Sages. To refer to the Maggid’s statement, it possesses “a wondrous dimension.” According to the Sages, the uniqueness of the seventh of Sivan is characterized by a single positive thrust, ascent. According to Rabbi Yossi, by contrast, the second day of Shavuos possesses two positive qualities: revelation from above (for it is the day of the giving of the Torah), and ascent, (as reflected in the Jews’ initiative in adding a day of preparation). The fusion of both qualities indeed adds “a wondrous dimension.”30

A Congruence of Motifs

Based on the above, we can appreciate the precision of the wording used by my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe, that the Baal Shem Tov would cherish the second day of Shavuos. On the surface, the reason he cherished the day was not because it is the second day of Shavuos, but because it is the seventh of Sivan, which according to our Sages is the first day after the giving of the Torah, and according to Rabbi Yossi, the day of the giving.

The explanation is as follows: the second day of Shavuos possesses an advantage with regard to the first. The observance of the first day is mandated by Scriptural Law; as such, the day possesses an inherent sanctity. The observance of the second day, however, is mandated by Rabbinic law, i.e., the day in its own right is an ordinary weekday, but the Jewish people caused it to be endowed with holiness.31 Thus the second day of a festival possesses a dimension of holiness similar to that described above with regard to the second day of Shavuos, the seventh of Sivan. It reflects an elevation of the worldly plane.32

Where No Doubt Exists

As is true with regard to all concepts explained in P’nimiyus HaTorah, the relationship between the observance of the second day of the festivals and the seventh of Sivan is also reflected in Nigleh, the revealed dimension of Torah law.

There is a more severe aspect to the observance of the second day of Shavuosthan there is to the observance of the second day of other festivals. The observance of the second day of other festivals was instituted because of a doubt. In places distant from Jerusalem, the day sanctified as Rosh Chodesh (on which depends the timing of the festivals) was not known with certainty, and therefore Jews observed every festival for two days.

This does not apply with regard to Shavuos, for the observance of Shavuos is not dependent on a particular day of the month, but rather on the conclusion of the counting of the omer.33 This in turn depends on the declaration of Rosh Chodesh Nissan. By Shavuos, the day consecrated as Rosh Chodesh Nissan was known throughout the world. Thus the second day of Shavuos was not observed because of doubt, but “so as not to differentiate between one festival and another.”34 For this reason, our Sages ordained that the second day of Shavuos be observed as a festival, despite the fact that there was never a doubt as to the day the holiday was to be celebrated.35

The inner reason for this law is that the second day of Shavuos and the seventh day of Sivan share the same spiritual thrust. Therefore, this day was always characterized by a unique spiritual significance because of the special qualities it possesses, as explained by the Maggid, and interpreted regarding the views of the Sages and Rabbi Yossi. This draws down greater power with regard to the observance of that day as a festival. This applies when the months are established according to a fixed calendar and the second day of Shavuos always falls on the seventh of Sivan. Moreover, even when the calendar was dependent on the sighting of the moon, in most years36 Shavuos was celebrated on the sixth of Sivan, for an effort was made to see that the testimony of the witnesses confirmed the dates arrived at by calculations.37

When the Baal Shem Passed Away

The dearness with which the Baal Shem Tov held the second day of Shavuos found expression at the time of his passing. The Baal Shem passed away on the first day of Shavuos, 5520.38 In such an instance, halachah prescribes39 that the person be buried on the second day of the holiday.40

Burial was also very significant for the Baal Shem. It is related41 that the Baal Shem stated that he had the potential to ascend to heaven in a tempest as did Eliyahu, but desired to fulfill the Divine decree:42 “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The advantage of returning to dust over ascending to heaven in a tempest echoes the advantage of the second day of Shavuos. For instead of the upward thrust of ascending to heaven, the emphasis is on a return to the earth.

The Baal Shem Tov’s Mission

It has been explained43 that every teaching from the Baal Shem Tov expresses the essence of his being. The Baal Shem Tov’s mission was to reveal the teachings of Chassidus which underscore the importance of elevating the material world.44 For this reason the Baal Shem Tov cherished the second day of Shavuos, for as mentioned, this elevation is the motif of the Divine service associated with that day.

(Adapted from Sichos Chag HaShavuos, 5720)