By Amy Wolff Sorter
While at Mount Sinai 3,324 years ago, our ancestors overslept, according to midrashic tradition. As a result, they came close to missing a major historical occurrence: Receiving the Torah.
Our ancestors didn’t have alarm clocks. Nor did they have Tikkun Leil Shavuot. These days, we have both.
Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the custom of staying up during part or all of first night of Shavuot to study and learn, is an important part of the overall Shavuot festival celebration at many Dallas-Fort Worth-area synagogues.
“The custom developed to make up for the mistake of our ancestors when they overslept. It also puts us in the right mindset to receive the Torah,” said Rabbi Levi Gurevitch, co-director of Chabad of Arlington.
Added Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis, spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound: “The Midrash doesn’t really dictate a practice, but Kabbalists took the story to indicate that the Israelites’ failure to wake up caused a rupture and damaged the relationship with God.”
By staying up all night to study, Jews repair that rupture and become “morally and spiritual ready to receive God’s revelation,” Dennis noted.
Though study of Torah and Talmud is traditional during these overnight and all-night sessions, many local synagogues and organizations are introducing different and creative ways to teach and learn.
Some synagogues will welcome visiting leaders and rabbis. Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas will play host to Rabbi Juan Mejia, southwest coordinator of Be’chol Lashon, who will talk about his upbringing in Bogota, Colombia, and his journey to reclaim his Jewish identity.
Other organizations offer interactive ways of study. For example, Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson will have its inaugural Torah-Thon, in which volunteer participants will divvy the 54 parshiyot and present Divrei Torah on each one. There is no limit to how the Divrei Torah are presented; skits, songs and discussions are encouraged, as are straight discussions.
“The idea here is to be compelled by many different people teaching and speaking, and each teaching may be completely different,” said Rabbi Rafi Cohen, Beth Torah’s religious leader.
Meanwhile, Kol Ami’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot will feature a showing of the 1920 silent film “The Golem,” with a discussion to follow about the divine-human partnership. “God imbues us with creative power, but we need to understand how far we can take it,” Dennis said.
DATA of Plano is offering its first all-night study session on topics such as “Ten Habits of Successful Sinai Jews,” “Trayvon Martin and the Right to Kill in Jewish Law” and “Secrets of the Soul: Soul Development and Free Will.”
Organization director Rabbi Nasanya Zakon said DATA of Plano’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot program expanded from one class in 2009-2011, when the programming lasted until 3 a.m.
“Once we made it to 3, the community said ‘we’re big boys now, it’s time for all-night study,’” Zakon said. “I’m just answering the call.” That “call” this year will also offer an adult-supervised all-night study for teenage girls at a DATA member’s home.
Nor is DATA of Plano the only one to include teens and youth in all-night activities. Congregation Ohev Shalom in Dallas will offer a Teen Torah Hop in which teenage boys will visit different homes (under strict adult supervision) to participate in a discussion of relevant topics.
The shul’s rabbi, Aryeh Rodin, said Ohev Shalom has offered all-night study sessions for adults for many years, but this is the first formal programming for teens.
Adults, in the meantime, will ponder issues pertaining to the presentation of “To Tell the Truth: Is Lying Ever Permitted?”
Though topics offered and learning methods might vary from synagogue to synagogue, all Tikkun Leil Shavuot activities will offer one thing: Lots of coffee and sugared (dairy) snacks.
In fact, Dennis pointed out, coffee is the reason Tikkun Leil Shavuot is even possible.
“There is a late-night burst of midnight study sessions in Jewish tradition, which didn’t exist before the modern era,” he said. “Coffee is the one factor that connects it together.”
Cohen agreed. A couple Beth Torah youth group members are preparing a YouTube video to promote Shavuot events, and the rabbi said, “One of the props we use is a coffee maker. We need coffee and deserts to get through the night.”
Even with tables groaning with caffeine and sweets, there is little guarantee that folks will make it through the entire night.
“In general, it’s like a forced march,” Dennis said. “You start out with a big crowd, with midnight the occasion for half of them to go home.”
Gurevitch acknowledged that he typically stays up all night to study, and he has company at the beginning of the evening. By the time he makes it to the wee hours of the morning, he’s generally studying by himself.
But interesting things can happen for those who do remain through the next day and morning prayer services.
“Some people get their second wind and get hyper and enthused, while others fall asleep,” Zakon said. Rodin agreed, sharing methods he uses to keep participants functioning.
Coffee and dessert breaks take place frequently, he said. And at one point, “we sing a Jewish song at one point to keep people awake. Or, at least, to keep them sharp,” Rodin added.
Cohen said the Beth-El Torah-Thon is set up in a way so people can get up and stretch when needed, even as they listen to the different Divrei Torah.
But staying up all night, or at least part of the night, is part of the challenge involved with Tikkun Leil Shavuot. It allows modern-day Jews to do what their ancestors could not: Remain awake to prepare for receipt of the Torah. As such, note the rabbis, all-night study is more than commemoration; it’s reenactment.
“We want people to come from all-night study as if they were standing at Mount Sinai,” Rodin explained. “This is meant to transport us back in time more than 3,300 years ago to make a formal acceptance to perform God’s commandments.” Added Cohen: “With Tikkun Leil Shavuot, we’re doing what we should be, reviewing the Torah and retracing steps so we can better prepare for Shavuot itself.”
Whether Tikkun Leil Shavuot activities revolve around teen hops, D’var Torah preparations, movie-watching or other types of learning, the spirit and meaning are the same.
“Torah gives an understanding of our souls, mission in life and character development,” Zakon said. “It’s as relevant today as when God gave it to us 3,324 years ago.”