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On Shavuot, Finding Myself at Sinai. Again.

A convert to Judaism discusses why the sleepless, all-night study sessions make this her favorite holiday

Siân Gibby
May 13, 2010
Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine; photo from Library of Congress
Mount Sinai, circa 1910, from the Matson Collection.Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine; photo from Library of Congress
Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine; photo from Library of Congress
Mount Sinai, circa 1910, from the Matson Collection.Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine; photo from Library of Congress

A few weeks ago I had my friend Dahlia on the phone, subjecting her to my annual bitching about my least-favorite holiday, Passover.

“I adore Pesach,” she said.

“I know you do,” I replied. “I like Shavuot best.”

“Shavuot!” she said scornfully. “Of all the Jewish holidays! It’s like the ugly girl at the party that everyone feels obliged to dance with.”

I tried to defend my position but failed. Most born Jews, like Dahlia, have the warmest holiday feelings for the Festival of Matzot, whereas among converts, like me, you’ll find a surprising number who prefer different chagim: Yom Kippur or even, as in my case, the neglected yontif step-child, Shavuot.

“I like Pesach because it’s all food and family,” Dahlia said. “You like Shavuot because it’s all Heschel.” She had a point. Jewish food and family can be hard for converts to connect with. And reading Abraham Joshua Heschel was, for me, a catalyzing experience in my journey to Judaism; Heschel’s brand of Hasidic mysticism permeates my love for and experience of all things to do with my life as a Jew. And Shavuot more than many other holidays confronts us with the ways that mysticism can clash with our regular, clear-eyed, secular manner of living life. If you take Shavuot seriously you have to grapple with some tough concepts for rationalists to embrace, like the idea that all Jews, ever, including converts, were literally present at Sinai to receive Torah. I’m a born mystic, and I love that notion. It means, among other things, that I am no less a Jew than my rabbi, or Barbra Streisand. Like them, I was at Sinai. You have to suspend disbelief in order to get to that point, but, hey: Suspending disbelief is what Nachshon did when he set the first foot into the Red Sea, right?

Another happenstance that accords well with my mystical bent is the fact that many Jewish holidays mandate altered states of consciousness: On Purim drunkenness is halachically required, thank you very much (not a big hardship for this Welsh-Irish girl); Yom Kippur’s fast mirrors the classic path to shamanistic otherness. And then there’s the sleeplessness on Shavuot.

It may be that this aspect of Shavuot, the part that is hardest for me to take, is paradoxically its most-appealing element. I do not do well on less than eight hours of sleep, to say the least. Never have. All through high school and college I got my work done during regular hours without having to resort to the fabled all-nighters my pals moaned about being “forced” to pull. I dislike travel precisely because of jetlag, which renders me something close to psychotic. And yet I look forward to the Tikkun Leil Shavuot all year, even though it’s intensely uncomfortable, debilitating. Why?

I once took a class at my synagogue in which we studied traditional texts having to do with the relationship of Jews to the Torah—Torah lore, if you like. We studied midrashim about how God made the Torah (which in Hebrew is feminine) long before crafting our worlds and used to play with her. A story says that when God decided to create the universe, he consulted the Torah. My favorites were those about the scholar as the Torah’s lover; how he waits in the courtyard for a glimpse of her behind the curtain in her upper chamber. She peeks out at him, showing just enough of her face to arouse his love and desire even further, and then hides herself away. These tales imply that the Torah is alive and can be said to possess a consciousness, one that might in some sense be more real than our own. “What if,” my rabbi said rapturously one night, “what if all we are is a dream that the Torah is having?”

I read in a New York Times article on sleeplessness this fascinating hypothesis: “Because crucial mechanisms for REM are in the oldest parts of our brains in evolutionary terms, Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist and psychologist at Washington State University, has postulated that dreaming may actually predate our more evolved form of waking consciousness and cognition, that our ancestors lived in a kind of primitive dream consciousness.”

I loathe being tired, but for me it’s worth enduring the pins and needles behind my eyelids, the sallow skin and lightheadedness of the tikkun all-nighter, to get a taste of what that ancient, Torahlike consciousness is like. It’s Rumi’s exhortation to not sleep: to be wakeful and attentive to God. It also puts me in mind of other activities that typically deprive us of sleep: midnight sex, vigils at the bedside of death, or the hours of childbirth’s labor. Surely that liminal time between dusk and dawn and the peculiarity of being awake within it touches some of the strangeness, the otherworldliness of God.

When I went the first time to the all-night study, I was introduced to the moment in the Jewish holiday cycle that I have come to love more than any other: the point, at about 5 in the morning, at which we go out of the synagogue into the dim Upper West Side streetscape and breathe in the cool air and digest the previous seven hours of Torah while we wait for it to be light enough to daven Shacharit. Then, wordlessly, we go back into the synagogue and hear the Decalogue chanted. That first year, in a daze, I didn’t know what to expect or when, so I took a quick bathroom break during the morning davening, and as I came back into the sanctuary and took my place with my exhausted comrades I became aware that my heart was beating furiously hard, in fact pounding as if it would burst. What was happening? My addled brain flailed. Was it cardiac arrest? Was I in love? Then slowly I became aware of the words coming from the bimah, washing over me and the assembled group in which I stood. “Anochi…” and realized I was at Sinai. Again.

Siân Gibby holds the position of writer/editor at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute. She is the translator of Intimate History of the Great War, by Quinto Antonelli; The God of New York, by Luigi Fontanella; and Resistance Rap, by Francesco Carlo.

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