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Shavuos: Why The Jewish People Overslept

ויוצא משה את העם לקראת האלקים מן המחנה ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר.

“And Moshe dragged the nation outside the Camp to meet Hashem, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain.” (Shemos 19:17)

On the morning of Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah), the Jewish people overslept and Moshe actually had to wake them up and drag them to the mountain. How could this have happened? After weeks of preparing for this momentous day, which the Jewish people anticipated with great joy and excitement, they simply overslept? How was this possible?

How did the Jewish people prepare for Matan Torah? Rebbe Mendel of Rimonov once told one of his disciples that the Jewish people prayed the holy tefillah (prayer) of Ahava Rabbah, where we beseech Hashem to “enlighten our eyes in Your Torah,” among other supplications for spiritual matters.

The Jewish people wanted to be as worthy as possible on the day of Matan Torah. One way they sought to achieve this was by emulating Moshe. One of Moshe’s greatest attributes was his supreme humility, so the Jewish people tried to work on attaining his level of humility.

In truth, it is very difficult to acquire sincere humility. As soon as the person reaches a new level of humility, the yetzer hara (evil inclination) comes to him and says: “Wow! Look how great you’ve become! You’re so humble!” Needless to say, such thoughts undermine the very qualities that the person acquired.

The Baal Shem Tov taught his disciples: “If someone will try to give you advice on how to overcome arrogance and attain humility, you shall not believe him. Only someone who declares that the way to achieve humility is by praying sincerely to Hashem to overcome the yetzer hara of arrogance, only this person is speaking the truth! There is no tried-and-true method for becoming humble, other than praying sincerely for this.”

When the Jewish people began working on their characters to attain humility, they realized how difficult it was to become truly humble. And so they thought that the only time when a person is completely humble is during his sleep, for at that time his thoughts are at rest and his entire being is humbled before Hashem. This was their motive for going to sleep on the morning of Matan Torah, as is hinted in the verse: “And they stood at the bottom of the mountain.” The Jewish people worked on attaining the attribute of humility, of being at the bottom and being even more humble than Mount Sinai which was chosen as the site of Matan Torah due to its humility.


There is another explanation why the Jewish people went to sleep. The angels in heaven protested the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. They claimed that “Hashem’s Glory should be given to the Heavens.” The Jewish people were not sure what would happen in the end. Would the Torah be given here on earth or would it be given in heaven? They so badly wanted to be at the giving of the Torah that they went to sleep, so that if the Torah would be given in heaven their neshamos (souls) should partake of this event.

In truth, the Torah was not given to the heavens. Moshe woke up the Jewish people and urged them to come to the mountain. “Hashem is giving the Torah to physical beings, not to heavenly angels!” he declared as he rushed them along.

The Torah tells us: “It [the Torah] is not in heaven, as it says: ‘Who can ascend to the heavens and take it for us so that we shall fulfill it?’” Rashi comments: “If the Torah would have been in the heavens, we would have been required to construct ladders and ascend to the heavens.” How do we understand these words?

Rashi is not referring to ladders built out of wood or rope; that would be impossible. He is telling us that we would have had to look for any possible means with which to ascend to the heavens, such as going to sleep and letting our souls learn Torah at that time. Rashi concludes that this isn’t necessary because Hashem did give us the Torah in His great kindness.


It is interesting to note that some tzaddikim did not teach Torah to their Chassidim on Shavuos night. Why did they refrain from teaching Torah on the day of Matan Torah? They felt that on this day we must accept the Torah, and our primary objective should be to prepare ourselves to become worthy vessels for containing the Torah. It is not the time to show off our Torah knowledge and demonstrate how much Torah we already know, but rather to show that we are empty vessels that are ready and willing to accept the Torah anew.

We should prepare for Matan Torah by praying sincerely to Hashem, as we’ve mentioned before in the name of Rebbe Mendel of Rimonov: “Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah!”

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