Shavuot: Learn, Baby, Learn!

Poor Shavuot!  It is surely the “Rodney Dangerfield” of major Jewish holidays.

Yes, of major Jewish holidays. The Torah commands us to celebrate three pilgrimage festivals; Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavuot.  But Shavuot gets short shrift. 

Pesach is the festival extraordinaire, with its special preparations, rituals, events … and foods, both eaten and not eaten.  

Sukkot finds us building, or visiting, colorfully decorated temporary dwellings in which we live (or, at least, eat) and into which we invite and/or are invited as guests.  

Both festivals are highly participatory, with their basic meanings easily understood … slavery, exodus, redemption, harvest, community, continuity, the fragility of life.

And, it certainly “helps” give these two festivals kavod (respect/weight) that they last seven or eight days. 

But many Jews, even those who fully engage with Pesach and Sukkot, give Shavuot hardly a nod.  

Why?  It may be because Shavuot is an altogether different kind of holiday. It is both a cerebral celebration and a celebration of the cerebral.   Aside from holiday prayers (such as Hallel and the Yitzkor memorial) and dairy foods, the main ritual observance is all-night learning.  

Also, unlike Pesach and Sukkot, it’s not a family- or home-oriented holiday, even though, in principle, children can also learn, at their level, for as long as they can stay awake (perhaps a story-telling sleep over or camp-out?)  

But why would we learn all night to celebrate the holiday on which, according to tradition, G-d gave us the Torah?

Among the many reasons offered by our tradition, here are three:

1. To express our joy at the opportunity, and to highlight the obligation, to learn Torah.  After all, as it says in the Mishnah, “these are the obligations without measure …. and the study of Torah is equal to them all.”

2.  The night of study is called, in Hebrew: “Tikun leil Shavuot.”  Literally, “the Shavuot night of correction/repair.”  Why correction/repair?  According to Midrash, the Israelites camped at Sinai failed to get up early in anticipation of the impending momentous event of receiving the Torah; G-d had to wake us up!  To “correct” this and show our eagerness to “receive” Torah in the morning, we stay up all night in "preparation" and in learning. 

Perhaps most interestingly:

3.  To engage in learning for its own sake rather than for practical benefit , i.e., “Torah l’shmah” is an intensely Jewish thing to do, and something that every Jew is obligated by Jewish law to do.  Why?  Rather than read my attempt to answer this question, much better that you read Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s (renown author and winner of the Israel Prize among many other awards) thoughts here.  
 
Although I have been engaged in various programs of formal study (for which one definition is paying course tuition) virtually throughout my adulthood, I have never before thought of this as a particularly Jewish thing to do.  Not that Jews have any monopoly on continual learning, of course, but it is a prescribed Jewish obligation.  Whereas it has just seemed to me to be what I have wanted to do, I now understand that it has been what I– and every Jew – is supposed to do.  

Maimonides – who was himself almost incomprehensibly busy with work, community service, and many other consuming obligations and yet produced many monumental works of scholarship in his “spare time” -- taught: "Just as a person is commanded to teach his children, so too he is commanded to teach himself."  - [Mishneh Torah, Talmud Torah, Fifth Halakah.] 

This Saturday night, I will, G-d willing, enjoy a fascinating (albeit bleary-eyed) night attending a variety of lectures at several synagogues and educational institutions throughout Jerusalem.  My night will culminate, if I can manage it, with a very early morning walk to the Kotel, joined by thousands of other all-night learners.

If you live in or near a Jewish population of significant size, there is almost sure to be some kind of part-or-all night study session open to you this Saturday night.  Why not contact your rabbi, or go on-line, to check out the possibilities?  

Or, invite some of your friends into your home for an evening learning session or “adult (no) slumber party?”  What an experience for you, your friends, and the children?!  And what a lesson to them that Jewish learning is at the core of what it means to be a Jew.  

This year, don't just give a "wink and a nod" to Shavuot.  In fact, don't give it any winks!  If you must fall asleep, do it with a Jewish book in your hand. 

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach! 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb