Jewish World Review May 31, 2002/ 20 Sivan, 5762

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Them and us | Every Jewish holiday is special in its own way, but the one we most recently celebrated, Shavuos, is particularly unusual: it has no specific "active" observances, nothing like Passover's seders and matzoh or Sukkot's sukkahs or "four species" or Rosh Hashana's shofar-blowing.

Shavuos is identified by Jewish tradition as the anniversary of the Jewish People's acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Since the act of accepting is an inherently passive one, the holiday reflects that fact by being pointedly devoid of physically active mitzvot. It is a time of receiving the Torah anew, and most appropriately expressed through Torah-study.

Which is no doubt the reason for the ancient Jewish custom to stay awake the entire night of Shavuos immersed in the texts of our tradition.

Every year brings a personal Shavuos miracle, one that I suspect is shared by many others. By the end of our family's festive meal on Shavuos night, the prospect of staying awake an hour, much less six or seven, seems an impossible one. Yet, somehow, entering the study-hall, some holy energy seems to seize me, and, even as my mind and body increasingly rebel against the deprivation of slumber, my soul jumps for joy.

This year, my soon-to-turn-12 son Dovie insisted on joining me in study in the large main sanctuary of a local synagogue, which was crowded with scores of Jewish men and boys doing much the same. The same scene, I know, was visible in thousands of places around the world, Jewish men and Jewish boys, studying the texts of the Jewish religious tradition.

The two of us, salt-and-pepper-bearded, could-stand-to-lose-a-few-pounds father and reddish-haired, dimpled and determined son, spent most of the night engrossed in Talmud. We began with a page of the tractate he is studying in school -- a long passage dealing with the imperative of alleviating an animal's pain - and then focused on several pages of another tractate he and I regularly learn together -- which focused on the law of mezuzah and the status of land ownership in Jerusalem.

Dovie seemed entirely awake throughout it all, and asked the perceptive questions I have come to expect from him. We paused over the course of the night only for him to attend two classes for boys his age in an adjoining room offered by an older yeshiva boy.

The experience was enthralling, as it always is, and while it was a challenge to concentrate (and at times even to keep my eyes from closing) during the prayer service that followed at 5:00 am, Dovie and I both "made it" and then, hand in hand, walked home, where we promptly crashed. Before my head touched my pillow (a millisecond or two before I entered REM sleep), I summoned the energy to thank G-d for making me a Jew.

That silent prayer came back to me like a thunderclap a few days later, when I caught up on some reading I had missed (in the word's most simple sense) over the holiday. Apparently, during the very hours Dovie and I were studying holy texts, the presses at The Washington Times were printing a story datelined Gaza City.

Dated May 17, it began with a description of a 12 year old Palestinian boy, Abu Ali, being "lovingly dresse[d] by his mother in a costume of a suicide bomber, complete with small kaffiyeh, a belt of electrical tape and fake explosives made of plywood."

"I encourage him, and he should do this," said his mother; and Abu Ali himself apparently agreed. "I hope to be a martyr," he said. "I hope when I get to 14 or 15 to explode myself."

My thoughts flashed back to Shavuos, and I thanked G-d again, from the very bottom of my heart.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. Comment by clicking here.


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