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Sleepless for Shavuot

I was never great at pulling all-nighters in college.

But I’ll be pulling one this weekend on Shavuot.

Apparently it’s the thing to do when marking the receiving of the Torah: stay up all night studying it.

And celebrating it.

So this coming Saturday, May 23, despite the temptation of traditional Memorial Day barbecues, I’ll be heading to the JCC in Manhattan to take part in their jam-packed, 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. smorgasbord of programming, whose 75 sessions include everything from “Why Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama Can’t Get Along” (led by Peter Beinart), to “Midrash Through Dance” (taught by Rabbi Mira Rivera); from “Opening Ourselves to Revelation through Meditation” (Sheldon Lewis) to “The Nepal Earthquake and the Ebola Outbreak: What We Know —and Fail to Learn— About the State of the World” (Ruth Messinger).

“The tradition is that the Israelites at Sinai stayed up all night getting ready to receive the Torah,” explains master-organizer Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, Director of the Center for Jewish Living at the JCC. “That is getting replicated in this tradition, and we have a very contemporary twist on it.”

I’m already overwhelmed by the options for each hour of the night – sometimes as many 21 — in categories including Text Study, Israel, Social Justice, Jewish Spirituality, Arts, Culture & Culinary, and Wellness.

For the 11:15 p.m. to 12:15 a.m. slot, I’ll be torn between “Line Dancing” and the session led by my editor, Jane Eisner: “All Who Leave: Shulem Deen on Exiting Hasidic Life.”

At 12:30 a.m., should I go to “The Future of Jewish Media” or “The Borscht Belt: Boot Camp for America’s Comedians”?

Maybe I’ll just drown my fatigue in alcohol at “A Taste of Schnaaps”?

I can’t imagine being clearheaded enough to participate in the 4 a.m. session, “Jews or Israelites: Pluralism or Unity” so I may end up going– zombie-like — to “Israeli dance” instead.

At 4:15 a.m., the intrepid remaining souls will head to the roof to ring in the dawn with a concert.

Rabbi Cohen explained that the concept of all-night preparation, called a “Tikkun Leyl Shavuot” (Liturgy of the Night of Shavuot), started with the Kabbalists in the 16th Century.

The JCC’s more modern iteration sprung from Dr. Ruth Calderon, an author and former Knesset member who founded the Alma College in Tel Aviv – a secular take on the yeshiva.

“Ruth was here for a year,” Cohen recounts, “and brought to us the idea that Jewish learning should be inviting and accessible to all Jews, regardless of whether they have a yeshiva background. She wanted every Jew to look at Jewish text and explore its intersection with the arts, to create immersive communities of study for people.”

Every space in the JCC building will be used Saturday night – from the Beit Midrash to the cycle studio, from the kitchen to the roof.

“In some ways it does feel like a reenactment of everybody gathered at Sinai,” Cohen says, “the Jewish people in all of their complexity and diversity in one place getting ready to have this experience together.”

But what about being too tired to enjoy it?

“An afternoon nap is a great idea,” Cohen says. “And we have lots of coffee and cheesecake.”

Ah, yes — I’ve heard about the plethora of creamy Zabar’s cheesecake.

What does cheesecake have to do with Torah?

The Israelites waiting for the law weren’t sure of the kosher rules yet, so they played it safe and stuck to dairy.

“Our Tikkun this year has a learning session about lactose intolerance and how to manage Shavuot when you have issues with dairy,” Cohen says, “so we’re going to have some dairy-free cheesecakes in that session.”

Shavuot (translation “weeks”) is another example of a holiday whose meaning changed from its origins.

In the Bible, the holiday is connected to a harvest celebrated 49 days after Passover.

It morphed to become the moment the law was given on Mount Sinai.

Though the Bible never says that, the rabbis made the connection.

“We see a number of problems in associating it with the revelation at Sinai,” writes Rabbi Michael Strassfeld in his invaluable primer, The Jewish Holidays. “The biblical references to Shavuot regard it only as the feast of harvest or the day of the first fruits. Nowhere in the Bible is any link made between Sinai and Shavuot.”

So why was it linked?

Because after the Second Temple was destroyed, Judaism moved away from temple offerings (meat and fruits) and began to tie the harvest holidays (Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot) to historical events (Exodus, Sinai, desert wandering).

It made sense at first to connect fruits to revelation because they happened near each other in the Torah. But over time, the fruit-giving focus gave way to the Torah-giving focus.

I can see how there’s a lot more staying power in the drama of Moses ascending Sinai to get God’s law and the Israelites waiting, on edge, for him to return.

Cohen explains, “One of the things they were instructed to do was not to sleep. There’s a lot in our tradition about fasting and what that does to you physically and spiritually to be in an altered state. So this is a sleep fast, and we should think about what that means.”

I don’t have to think about it; sleep-deprivation makes me really cranky.

“We know we’re not the same people after a night of no sleep,” Cohen continues. “Our defenses are down. We’re more vulnerable. We’re less measured. It’s a physical manifestation of the state of wilderness that the Israelites were in — where they had to be to receive Torah in a very vulnerable, raw, undefended state. Because that’s the state you need to be in to really receive something wondrous. If we had all our usual defenses up, we wouldn’t believe that revelation was possible.”

Is revelation possible? Today?

I call Rabbi Irwin Kula, an author, popular speaker, and a regular teacher at the JCC Tikkun (except this year, when he is committed elsewhere). How would he tell the vast majority of liberal Jews – who don’t celebrate Shavuot — why it has meaning today?

His reply: “I always ask the question, ‘What do we hire a holiday to do for us?’ In other words, Shavuot got invented because it was responding to a genuine, existential yearning that people had. So what’s the yearning to which Shavuot is a response?”

I like his answer. “It’s the yearning to know what it is we’re really supposed to do with our lives.”

My own former senior rabbi, Peter Rubinstein, of Central Synagogue, used to tell us something similar. If the Talmud contends that every Jew stood at Sinai, that’s a metaphor for us today: we each receive this tradition and have to decide what to do it with, what it asks of us. Standing at Sinai means each of us figuring out our role or purpose.

Kula echoes this. “The question is, ‘What do you hear?’ If that’s not a living question, Shavuot can’t work for you.”

He believes the JCC’s Tikkun works for hundreds of people for two reasons: one, people want communal events that transcend denominations. “That’s part of everyone standing at Sinai,” he says. “It’s not an individual experience. Everybody’s there.”

The other magnet, he thinks, is the profound symbol of Sinai — the idea that an enslaved people suddenly becomes free, with the law to embrace or not.

“The question of Torah,” Kula says, “is not a Jewish question; it’s a human question: what am I supposed to do now that I’m free, now that I have choice? Sinai is the technology to respond to that human question: who do I want to be? And I think part of what it means to study all night is that it’s an immersive practice of listening really, really carefully.”

Those words tug at something true. I’ve always resisted the idea that there’s some purpose I was put on this earth to serve. It feels like hubris to me – to think I have a key role to play.

But Kula’s framing, I think, makes Shavuot urgent: What do I want to do and who do I want to be? Especially when that question is asked while standing alongside my fellow Jews, asking themselves the same question.

“The desire to all stand at Sinai,” Kula says, “is the yearning to really be a community. In America right now we have real fragmentation. Imagine if we could stand for an hour in front of the holy space in America, whatever you consider that to be – the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol building — and feel that we knew what it was like to be American, together. For one minute. And then an hour later we can start fighting again, because that’s the Torah, too. And when the fight gets a little too ugly, we look at each other and say, ‘Oh right; you were there….Because every generation symbolically was in the room in Philadelphia when the Declaration of Independence was signed. And every generation stood at Sinai.”

So I’m going to stand – though I may be teetering towards the end – and study into the wee hours.

I’m looking forward to the cheesecake.

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