A famous Midrash states that the Jews slept the night preceding Matan Torah: “The sleep of Atzeres (Shavuos) is sweet, the night is short, and the insects didn’t bite.” It further reports that when Hashem arrived in the morning for the giving of the Torah, He was dismayed, and proceeded to wake them. This is one of the reasons for the custom of remaining awake and learning Shavuos night, known as “tikun leil Shavuos,” since we’re rectifying the night they spent sleeping.
This, however, seems quite odd, considering that sefirah today is modeled after the lead-up to Matan Torah, when upon learning they were to receive the Torah in fifty days after leaving Egypt, the Jews eagerly tallied the elapsing days, thus establishing the template of sefirah. That being the case, the fact that the countdown culminated in a night of sleep seems peculiar.
Additionally, they had radically refined themselves during the time the giving of the Torah approached. The verse instructs us to count fifty days, yet we only count 49, and chassidus explains that while there are “fifty gates of binah,” no one, including Moshe, can comprehend more than 49, and so we advance daily from gate to gate until all 49 are completed, when our achievements are crowned by our receiving the fiftieth directly from Heaven. This is all in reference to contemporary sefirah; we can only imagine the original event! So . . . after achieving their lofty level and with intense anticipation, how did they end up asleep?
A Sweet Sleep
We must therefore conclude that the sleep was intended as a form of preparation for receiving the Torah. Sleep is a process by which the soul partially departs from the body; it’s said to be a sixtieth part of death, and that is intended in a good way. Our souls are ordinarily confined within our bodies, no matter how refined those are; even the souls of complete tzaddikim are restricted by their bodies while vested there. But “when we sleep, our soul rises to Heaven and draws life.” There are numerous tales of sleeping tzaddikim who absorbed Torah that would have otherwise required great effort, because the soul is only capable of maximizing its potential once it is separated from the body.
And so, the Jews reckoned that the giving of the Torah, the fiftieth level, was so sublime and beyond their reach that the best preparation would be to sleep and thus enable the soul to be unfettered by the physical body. They would thereby be ideally positioned for the experience of Matan Torah and thus their sleep was spiritually “sweet,” and the night, representing darkness and concealment, was “short,” since by the time the last night of sefirah arrived, the only darkness left was that inherent to their bodies. This exalted level of sleep explains why they remained unbitten by insects, in defiance of nature. Had their sleep simply been a straightforward case of apathy and carelessness, then there would be no basis for the insects miraculously not biting them; this was a noble, “sweet” sleep, to the extent that it affected the creatures in their vicinity.
However, no matter how much we justify their decision, Hashem ultimately was unhappy about their act, and we continue to repair it to this day. The Rebbe explains that one of Matan Torah‘s accomplishments was the phenomenon of physical mitzvos. The avos who “observed the entire Torah” did so in a spiritual sense. Yaakov’s sticks which, according to the Zohar, were the equivalent of tefillin, channeled the spiritual force of the mitzvah, but the sticks themselves did not become holy. Today, once the tefillin are written properly, they become sacred articles, which is something Yaakov, before Matan Torah, could not produce.
We therefore engage every year in “tikkun,” rectifying the night of Shavuos; we don’t depart this world and opt to learn higher, deeper things, we don’t forget this world in favor of “sweet sleep” and a “short night,” like “a tzaddik in his coat” (one who doesn’t care about others as long as he’s warm). Hashem descended during Matan Torah, and likewise, we must engage other Jews and empower them to observe Torah and mitzvos. Even if we believe ourselves to be unworthy, our humility is misplaced, we must take the little that we know (and deep down we’re convinced we know a lot), and share it with others. We shouldn’t leave our bodies; we must receive the Torah in them.