Institutionalized Insomnia

The first time that I stayed up learning all night on Shavuos was when I was about 14 years old. We lived in Doncaster, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia and attended a traditional shul, which, until that year did not have a Rabbi.  The shul hired a young Rabbi, an American, Yeshiva University graduate, who had a profound influence on me.  One thing that I recall clearly was Shavuos night learning, something which he instituted in our Shul, when he opened a Mikraos Gedolos Chumash and analyzed a pasuk using a variety of meforshim.  This event literally and figuratively, woke me up, and helped me become aware of the infinite depth and breadth of the Torah, and made me aware of dimensions of Torah knowledge that I did not even know existed.

After high school I studied in Yeshivas ITRI in Yerushalayim where Shavuos night was a very intense learning experience;  it included a shiur by HaGaon Rav Shlomo Fischer, Shlita, which, in his unique style, was an eloquent, brilliant tour of almost every part of Torah, from Halacha to Kabbalah, and from Neviim Acharonim to the Ketzos HaChoshen.  The night concluded with a large group of us walking to the Kosel for shacharis kevasikin. Walking through the streets of the Old City while it was still dark, seeing the sun rising over the Kosel, and davening together with thousands of others while standing at the gates of Heaven (Teshuvos Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah 2:233) was a truly unforgettable and inspiring Shavuos night.

Years later, when I taught at Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim I was asked to be scholar in residence for Ohr Somayach in Johannesburg, South Africa for Shavuos. Not having lived in Australia for quite a while I forgot that Shavuos night in the Southern Hemisphere is about 8 or 9 hours long, unlike the puny 4 or 5 hours in the Northern Hemisphere.  In the single most exhausting Shavuos I ever experienced, I delivered eight shiurim on that night  My adrenalin level, however, was quite high, as I gave the first two shiurim in a shul in Savoy Estates and then walked for half an hour to Ohr Somayach in Glenhazel.  Walking late at night in Johannesburg is (so say the least) unsafe; and I believe that I shaved 10 minutes off the record for that walk.  When I arrived in Glenhazel my heart was pounding, my eyes were wide open, and I had no difficulty staying awake.

Living in the USA and working for Gateways, I have spoken at many Gateway’s seminars, Shabbatonim and Yom Tov programs. At the first two Shavuos programs that Gateways organized, I was enthusiastic, optimistic and perhaps a little too ambitious in what I decided to teach. The first year I gave a four-and-a-half-hour shiur in which we surveyed all 613 mitzvos, admittedly not in great depth, but we finished them all by dawn. The night started with over 100 people at the shiur and by the end I had a minyan of attendants, half of them comatose. The next year I decided to teach the entire Maseches Tamid, 8 and a half blatt, in one night. B”H we finished the Masechta and made a siyum at kiddush but based on the attrition rate and consciousness of the participants I decided to go back to one-hour shiurim on topics of more universal appeal.

Last year was a challenging Shavuos.  Most Shuls were not yet open, seminars were not happening, and our family was “home alone.”  I am not sure how much coffee I consumed that night, but I think I may have single-handedly impacted the world coffee supply and interrupted my sleep cycles for the next week.

BeEzras Hashem, this year we will have a more normal Shavuos, with shiurim, chavrusas and programs. Whatever it is that keeps you awake – an inspiring Rabbi, a brilliant shiur, a death-defying walk, ambitious goals, or caffeine – you will be joining Klal Yisroel around the world and throughout history in re-accepting and receiving Torah from Sinai. Have a wonderful, joyful and inspiring Shavuos.

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