According to the Midrash, the Jews slept the night before receiving the Torah “because sleep on [Shavuos] was pleasant and the night was short.” It adds that no mosquitoes bit them while they slept and that when dawn arrived and Hashem wanted to give them the Torah, He had to personally awaken them, asking, “Why have I come and no one is here? Why have I called and no one answers?” (Yishaya 50:2)
To rectify our ancestors’ mistake, many remain awake on the first night of Shavuos, studying Torah until dawn.
All Torah stories are designed to teach us something – especially stories that seem to reflect negatively on our ancestors and especially stories that seem unnecessarily detailed. Is it really important, after all, for the Midrash to tell us that mosquitoes didn’t bite the Jews that night? What, then, is the Midrash trying to teach us with this story?
First, we must understand why the Jews slept that night altogether. Rishonim tell us that when the Jews heard they would receive the Torah 50 days after their exodus from Egypt, they excitedly started to count the days until the great event. In other words, they yearned to receive the Torah and must have been supremely excited the night before the anxiously awaited day. How, then, could they have slept that night at all, let alone sleep so soundly that they almost missed receiving the Torah?
What makes this question even stronger is the behavior of the Jews during these 50 days. We know that they were constantly refining themselves, each day drawing down another one of the sublime spiritual levels known as the “49 Gates of Understanding” – all in preparation to receive the 50th gate when G-d would give them the Torah. How, then, could they possibly have concluded these ardent preparations by going to sleep?
Since such behavior doesn’t make sense, we must conclude that they did not go to sleep because they were tired or lacked enthusiasm for the next day. Rather, they slept to prepare for it. How so?
The Alter Rebbe explains in Tanya that however exalted a soul’s spiritual attachment to G-d is while in a physical body, it is incomparable to the attachment a soul enjoys in the Heavenly realm before descending into a body. In a body, a soul cannot bear powerful spiritual revelations. During sleep, however, the soul can since it is somewhat divested from physicality. Indeed, we know that many saintly Torah personalities reached deeper levels of understanding while sleeping. Some even resolved Torah problems they toiled over the previous day.
The Jews went to sleep the night before Mattan Torah in the belief that their souls would ascend exalted spiritual levels and would grasp spiritual concepts in a way they couldn’t while awake. They, therefore, deemed sleeping to be a perfect preparation for receiving the Torah.
The Midrash notes that “the night was short” that night. In other words, the concealment of the material world was greatly diminished, and therefore sleep would bring them to a high spiritual level. Indeed, they were so elevated at that point that even mosquitoes didn’t disturb them.
And yet, Hashem wasn’t happy with the Jews’ behavior. Why? Because the Torah was given to us, not to rise above the world to the realm of souls divested from physicality, but to make the physical world itself holy. (Note that almost all the mitzvos involve physical objects.) To prepare for receiving the Torah, the Jews shouldn’t have divested from physicality; rather, they should have involved themselves more in sanctifying the physical world.
The lesson for us from this Midrash is clear. We should not cut ourselves off from the world; instead, we should utilize everything within it to make it a dwelling place for G-d. We therefore don’t sleep on the night of Shavuos; we study Torah all night, using our physical mouths and brains to speak and understand Torah. And we continue to do so after Shavuos – studying Torah, teaching Torah, observing mitzvos, and encouraging others to do so until we elevate the entire world and bring the revelation of Moshiach.
(Based on teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)