I just read a news story that US President Barack Obama says he's a night owl. As opposed to his predecessor, who was known as an early riser and usually in bed by 10:00 pm, Obama often stays up past midnight going

Obama often stays up past midnight going through a big stack of material.

through a big stack of material he's taken into the White House residence.

This hardly seems newsworthy, but it got me thinking about the holiday of Shavuot, which begins this Thursday night.

Shavuot commemorates the anniversary of the day God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. According to a story in the Midrash, the night before the Torah was given, the Israelites retired early to be well rested for the momentous day ahead. But they overslept and Moses had to wake them up because God was already waiting on the mountaintop. To rectify (le'taken, in Hebrew) this flaw in the national character, many Jews stay up all night to learn Torah in what is know as Tikkun Leil Shavuot.

President Obama already set a precedent this year by hosting the first ever Passover Seder in the White House (complete with Maxwell House Haggadahs, just like I use), so why not take the next step and hold a Tikkun Leil Shavuot in the Oval Office? Imagine the lineup of speakers: Rahm Emanuel on "The Sinai Experience", followed by Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton discussing "The Women's Role in the Book of Ruth".

But seriously, what is this Tikkun all about? Why is this custom so widespread? In recent years, its popularity has boomed and all types of communities have started their own Shavuot night learning programs, varying in language, level and topics.

On a personal level, I, a typical "early to bed, early to riser", struggle not to nod off on Shavuot night. In fact, many rabbis and communities have come to the conclusion that, although staying up all night for Torah study and the sunrise morning prayers which follow is commendable, if this will adversely affect the study or the prayers, then it is better to go to sleep and be fresh for prayers the next morning. Many communities offer just a few classes that run into the wee hours of the night, suggesting that you learn a little and then go off to bed.

But what is the point? Perhaps everyone should just go to sleep on Shavuot night? Why bother trying to stay up or even learn for just a few hours? To borrow a phrase from another big night on the Jewish calendar, "Why is this night different from all other nights?"

One possible answer hit me, of all places, on the baseball diamond. I play in a weekly softball game and, inevitably, when a teammate gets to a full count (three balls, two strikes) someone from the bench will yell, "Remember: a walk's as good as a hit." What he means is that if the pitch is not close to the strike zone, then the batter should not swing and just take the walk. In his mind, reaching first base after four balls is just as good as hitting the ball for a single.

I got to thinking about this. Is a walk indeed as good as hit? On the simple level, yes, you get to first base either way, but on a deeper level, a hit is so much better than a walk. The feeling you get when you hit the ball for a

All types of communities have started their own Shavuot night learning programs.

single and run to first base is not even comparable to a walk. You could also hit the ball for a double, a triple or a homerun - all far superior to a walk.

Shavuot is the only holiday on the Jewish calendar that comes with a countdown (or "count-up", if you will). From the day after the start of Passover we have been keeping a meticulous count, counting the omer, day by day, week by week, until we reach 49 days, seven weeks - a full count.

Finally, Shavuot comes on the fiftieth day. How do we mark this day? Will we simply 'walk' into Shavuot or will we extend ourselves with some late-night Torah study, even if just for a few hours?

As I see it, on Shavuot night we are all standing in the batter's box with our full count. The ultimate Commander in Chief is on the mound (or the Mount) waiting to deliver the 'payoff' pitch. We know it will be right down the middle. The least we can do is take a swing.