How I Spent My Shavuos


shafran1By Rabbi Avi Shafran
Odd as it might seem, the recent report that a library at Yemen Children’s Hospital was named after Palestinian suicide bomber Wafa Idris, that terrorist Samir Al-Kuntar spoke at the naming-ceremony and that little girls read poems in honor of the occasion brought back a Shavuos memory. According to the report, which originated in a Yemeni news service and was translated by MEMRI, the local Province Governor expressed pride “that the Arab nation has stalwart resistance [fighters] like Samir Al-Kuntar.” In 1974, Mr. Kuntar murdered an Israeli father in front of his four-year-old daughter and then smashed the little girl’s skull against a rock with a rifle butt.Every Yomtov is special in its own way, but Shavuos is unusual in that it has no specific mitzvas aseh, nothing like Pesach’s seder and matzoh, or Sukkos’s sukkah or arba minim, Rosh Hashana’s tekias shofar.

The Berditchever perceived something subtle in that fact. Shavuos, he noted, is identified by our mesorah the anniversary of Kabbolas HaTorah. Since the act of accepting is an inherently passive one, he explained, the Yomtov is pointedly devoid of physically active mitzvos. It is a time of receiving the Torah anew, and most appropriately expressed through limud haTorah.

Hence, likely, the ancient Jewish minhag to stay awake the entire night of Shavuos immersed in learning.

Every year I experience a personal Shavuos neis; it is one that I suspect is shared by many others. By the end of our family’s seudah on Shavuos night, the prospect of staying awake an hour, much less six or seven, seems an impossible one. Yet, somehow, entering the beis medrash, 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.

Seven years ago, my then nearly12-year-old son Dovie – today a strapping 19-year-old learning in Eretz Yisroel – insisted on joining me to learn at a large local shul, which was crowded with scores of Jewish men and boys doing the same.

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 Gemara. We began with a We began with the sugya of tzaar ba’alei chayim in Bava Metzia, which he was studying in yeshiva, and then continued with the sugya of Yerushalayim nischalka l’shvotim in Yoma, which he and I were learning regularly together.

Dovie seemed entirely awake throughout it all, and asked the perceptive questions I had come to expect from him. We paused over the course of the night only for him to participate in a chaburah for boys his age in an adjoining room, led by an older bochur.

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 Shacharis, which followed at 5:00 AM, Dovie and I both “made it” and then, hand in hand, walked home, where we promptly crashed. But before my head touched my pillow (a millisecond or two before I entered REM sleep), I summoned the energy to thank HaKodosh Boruch Hu for sharing His Torah with us.

That silent prayer came back to me like a thunderclap a few days later, when I caught up on some reading I had missed (though only in the word’s most simple sense) over Yomtov. Apparently, during the precise hours Dovie and I were learning Torah, the presses at The Washington Times were printing a story datelined Gaza City.

It began with a description of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Abu Ali, being “lovingly dress[ed] 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 to my own son, and I thanked Hashem again, from the bottom of my heart.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]
[Am Echad Resources/ Newscenter]