Soul-searching on a Sunday: Shavuot 2019

The advent of Shavuot, which is a momentous celebration of the Jews receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, is preceded by a careless and accidental human mistake.

Shlomit Ovadia

Judaism Shavuot

Accidents are natural; in fact, people have been having them since the beginning of creation, the documentation of which is poetically presented in the Torah’s various anecdotes documenting the human condition.

Likewise, the advent of Shavuot, which is a momentous celebration of the Jews receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, is preceded by a careless and accidental human mistake.

The Israelites had been traversing across the desert and were ready to receive the Torah from G-d in a crucial ceremony that would thereby fortify their status as the Jewish People. However, notwithstanding the day’s importance, they mistakenly overslept, according to the Midrash, and Moses had to awaken them after being reprimanded by G-d, who rhetorically asked, “why have I come and no one is here to receive me?” (Isaiah 50:2)

As a form of repentance and reconciliation, sages such as Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and Kabbalist Magen Avraham adopted the Zohar-originated practice of staying awake throughout the night studying on the eve of Shavuot, which grew to become a commonplace tradition. The widely accepted reasoning for this custom is that it shows how our enthusiasm for receiving the Torah does not wane overnight, nor does it tire us.

Think of having a huge event the next day—whether it be a sports competition, wedding celebration, or big trip—it is natural to have trouble falling asleep the night before out of excitement and anticipation. This is what we are trying to replicate by studying all night as we enter into the holiday of Shavuot.

However, this custom should not be perceived as a dogmatic decision without practical reason.

Most people have at some point or another accidentally slept through their alarm clocks or hit the snooze button, subsequently losing track of time some odd hour later. It is important to note that these instances tend to be largely unintentional, and people usually awake from these sleeping spells in a scrambling frenzy. In fact, oversleeping is oftentimes a reflection of poor sleep, stress, and exhaustion—and a failure to address these issues. It indicates a lack of self-care that subtly expresses itself by disrupting different areas of your life.

Examining the story of Shavuot from this perspective justifies the need to employ Judaism as a tool for overcoming the indefinite and predisposed tendency for human error. Bearing this in mind, enduring a night of studying transforms from being perceived as a consequence of our biblical actions to becoming a helpful self-reminder about the importance of prioritizing both our mental and physical health.

Beyond this custom, however, there are numerous other laws in existence within the sphere of Judaic teachings that guide us in caring for ourselves, such as nourishing the body through wholesome eating and proper exercise, avoiding giving heed to negative thoughts such as jealousy and sadness, dealing with stress and anxiety, and maintaining a positive mindset.  

Regarding our physical health, Maimonides asserts in his book series Mishnah Torah that "having a healthy and whole body is integral to Divine service-- as it is impossible to understand or know anything when one is sick." (Ch 4, laws 1-8) He goes into further detail about daily habits, dissuading people from eating past the point of three quarters’ satiation, not holding in the urge to urinate or defecate, warming the body through exercise before eating, sleeping a full 8 hours every night, avoiding spicy foods in the summer months, and adding staples during the winter months into one’s diet such as vinegar and mustard seeds.

Regarding behavior and mindset, the Torah prohibits the entertainment of jealousy and other negative thoughts. For example, the Tenth Commandment states that "you shall not covet the home of your fellow, nor his spouse or servants or animals, or anything that belongs to your fellow." (Exodus 20:14) The Talmud buttresses this, saying that "jealousy, desire and honor remove a person from the world," (Avot 4:21) and the Book of Proverbs concedes with: “jealousy in the heart makes the bones rot." (14:30)

Other stories in the Bible focus on the concepts of hope and faith, and encourage sharing one’s burden with G-d as a method for coping with difficult times. For example, when King David is hiding from the clasps of Avshalom, he turns to G-d, saying, "cast your burden on the Lord, and He will bear you; He shall never allow a righteous man to falter." (Psalms, 55:23) In another instance, the Torah states in Deuteronomy, “do not be afraid...for the Lord you God is the one...with you. He will not fail you” (31:6). We learn from these, as well as from other stories in the Torah, about the permanence of strength and gratitude.  

The Talmud also promotes positivity by prohibiting prayer “while immersed in sorrow,” which can only be accomplished “while rejoicing in the performance of the commandment” (Besimcha shel Mitzvah) and forbids anger, equating it to idol worship, such as the time when Moses was punished for his expressed anger during the sin of hitting the rock. (Hilkhot Deot 2:3)

Taking these ideas into consideration, we can utilize the holiday of Shavuot as an opportunity for introspection: are we eating well, getting enough sleep, managing our anxieties and life stressors, and taking all other appropriate measures that will enable us to receive Hashem with a pure spirit and healthy physical state? The energy of Shavuot and its customs begs us to check in with ourselves and ensure that we are caring for ourselves in every regard, in order for us to serve Hashem and accept the Torah in its entirety.