The Cleansing Effect of Head-Bobbing

The terrorist attack in Tel Aviv is very demoralizing. The same feelings of frustration, of sadness when reading of the lives of those killed, and pessimism as to when and where this will end. If it will end.

I find after the initial burst of wanting to know details of what occurred, a day later, when it comes to thinking of what I want to write about tonight, this is not it. Let’s talk about something else.

In thinking about Shavuot, one of the first things that comes to mind, no, that actually becomes a physical feeling is that of exhaustion. For the past few years I have delighted in staying up all night learning and in davening at the Kotel. Part of the attraction is the scene. There are thousands of people in the still of night wending their way to the Kotel. That is interesting and inspiring.

And although the custom of staying up all night is fairly new, perhaps 500 years, and is certainly not universally observed, it has an allure for me. While 25 years ago staying up all night on Shavuot was the exclusive domain of the very observant, it has become more widely embraced. There are “Tikuns”, programs of all sorts, with speakers of all sorts. It is not my cup of tea to have lectures on politics or discussions on current issues on Shavuot, but it is a different embrace of a Jewish practice and that is certainly of note.

My allure is the exhaustion. The head-bobbing at 6 am during the services. The struggle to keep awake.

The experience of disruption, of discomfort, of exhaustion, of refusing to give in to what is normal — sleeping.

I find the experience of conquering the comfortable to be cleansing. It is good to break out of our assumed limitations. Now, I am not in favour of staying up all night regularly. Nor do I impose greater meaning on this Shavuot custom than it deserves. It is a colorful, intense custom. It has meaning — how can I sleep on the day I am to receive the Torah? It is not as important as prayer with proper concentration and feeling, so on some level it is actually counter productive — keeping a custom at the expense of sacrificing a more essential mitzvah of proper focus in prayer.

But I find fascination in the conquest of the comfortable. It is not the only time in the year we break out of routine and our assumed limitations. On Sukkot we leave our home, stepping out of routine into a Sukka. On Pesach, we switch our menu, disrupting our routine (and digestion). On Yom Kippur we fast all day — and prevail over our hunger.

Perhaps then, this is a theme not just on Shavuot, but on many holidays. Perhaps we could say that Jewish holidays are accompanied by rupture of routine. Of prevailing over assumed limitations. Of breaking assumptions through disruption.

There is nothing wrong with routine. Unless routine brings complacency and wrings out of us aspiration. When routine lowers expectations, expectations of ourselves, then it is good for us to break the routine. We need to constantly reach beyond ourselves — and one way to do that is through disruption of the regular.

Underestimating ourselves is incompatible with all night learning.

And the reaffirmation of our aspirations is cleansing.

About the Author
Rabbi Reuven Tradburks is the Director of the Rabbinical Council of America, Israel Region. He served as a congregational rabbi for 23 years, most recently in Toronto, where he was also director of the Beit Din of the Vaad Harabonim for 10 years. He and his wife Joyce made aliya in 2009 and reside in Jerusalem. All views expressed here are the authors and are not the views of any organizational affiliation.
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