Why Stay Up All Night Studying Torah?

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Tonight, Jews across the world will pull an all-nighter. Some will sit in synagogue all night long; others will “shul-crawl,” going from one synagogue to another; others will sit in their homes, nibbling on cheese-cake and trying not to fall asleep on their couches; others  will camp out on Mt. Tamalpais, re-living the ancient Israelites’ experience of receiving the Torah; while others still are undecided about how and where – but are excited to greet the dawn.

Why is it customary to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot by staying up all night, engaging in, of all things, the learning of Torah? After all, aside from all of the current data on the benefits of sleep, don’t we remember Hector’s wise statement, in Book VII of Homer’s Iliad, that “it is a good thing to give way to the night-time?”

Here are three reasons for you to mull over tonight, between 2 and 3am – hopefully with a good pint of ice-cream at your side.

I.  Studying Torah at night is a Jewish value. It is not unique to Shavuot. Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah Chapter 3:13, writes:

“Even though it is a mitzvah to learn both during the day and at night, one gains the majority of wisdom at night; therefore, anyone who wants to merit the Crown of Torah should be careful each night, and should not lose even one to sleep, food and drink, conversation, and the like – rather, one should engage in the study of Torah and words of wisdom.”

There is something special about studying Torah at night. Yehuda Arye Leib Alter, in his work Sefat Emet, writes that the Jewish people are like fish, who, though they are always surrounded by water, constantly need water to be nourished. “The water is nothing but Torah,” the Talmud in Baba Kama 82a says, and, through its nightly study, we attempt quench that which cannot be quenched. On Shavuot night, then, the night on which we commemorate receiving the Torah, we stay up all night, modeling that which we will do on many nights to come.

II. Shavuot’s All-Night Torah study is a culmination of the process that begins with Passover. Shavuot is the end of a seven-week journey, and the culmination of the Exodus from Egypt. Passover marks the celebration of the ancient Israelite’s leaving Egypt, and Shavuot marks the celebration of the achievement of the purpose of the exodus – receiving the Torah. In fact, it is customary to count the days between Passover and Shavuot to stress the connection between these two holidays, a connection described in Exodus 3:12: “…when you take the nation from Egypt, you will engage in service to God on this mountain.”

The purpose of leaving Egypt is the receiving of the Torah.

We commemorate the exodus at the Seder, and stay up late into the night telling the story of the Exodus. It is only fitting, similarly, to stay up late into the night on Shavuot, celebrating the culmination of this process, and revealing that when we are no longer slaves, and our time is our own, we choose to use it to engage in Torah study.

III. This study nourishes us, and allows us to act, meaningfully, empathetically, in the world. On Shavuot, it is customary to read the Book of Ruth, which recounts the story of Ruth the Moabitess, who left her land and her people to attend to her poor mother-in-law, accompanying her to a Bethlehem of famine, and hostile to single women. Ruth embodies the Jewish notion of “chessed,” loving-kindness – actions that go “above and beyond” what is normally expected, and which make a profound impact on their recepients.

Ruth is the progenitor of King David, from whose line it is said that the Messiah will come; her model – that of action in the face of tragedy, compassion in a cold world, and kindness where it is not expected, nor even deserved, is a redemptive one. The Midrash on the Book of Ruth asks:

This book does not come to teach the unholy and holy, or the unpermitted and the permitted, and so why was it written? To teach how great the reward is for those who do acts of kindness.

The message of Shavuot is that, while Torah study is a value, it cannot be the end. It must be the framework, the system, which informs a life of action, of engagement, of striving to increase acts of chessed in the world. When we study Torah all night on Shavuot night in particular, our study must help inspire and inform the way in which we will act in the world the next morning, and the mornings to come.

Ruth Messinger, the President of American Jewish World Service, spoke recently to graduates from the Jewish Theological Seminary. “We are children of the exodus,” Messinger said. “This must be the framework for how we understand ourselves and how we act in the world… we must be held together by our commitment to our common values – by our recognition of our obligation not just to teach Torah but to live it, by our commitment to pursue justice.”

She is echoing an ancient conversation, recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin 40b, between Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues, during the Bar Kochba revolt, a conversation that we should keep in mind this coming Thursday night, and the nights to follow:

“What is greater – study or action? Rabbi Tarfon answered and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered and said: Study is greater. All answered and said: Study is greater, for study leads to action.”

Maya Bernstein is the Director of Education and Leadership Initiatives at UpStart Bay Area, which supports Jewish social entrepreneurs and their projects in the San Francisco Bay Area. She blogs regularly for Lilith magazine.

Posted on May 28, 2009

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