I know what some of you are thinking. Oh no, another three-day Yom Tov. But let me tell you why I think you should get excited. There is a very practical reason. What normally happens on Pesach? We are in a mad rush until right before Pesach. Either we are at work or we are involved in the untold preparations so that the Seder is just right. We are cooking the food and we are cleaning the house and we are checking the lettuce and we are burning the chametz and we are setting the table and we are arranging the seating. We want Seder night to be just right.
There’s just one problem. By the time we get to the Seder, we are exhausted! We wish that we could substitute the four cups of wine for four cups of coffee! And for some of us, all that exhausting preparation which makes us feel like a slave leading up to Pesach adversely impacts our ability to remain wide awake and alert Seder night so that we can truly enjoy this precious religious, national and family experience.
That’s why the three-day Yom Tov for Pesach is so special. We are forced to stop our Seder preparations on Shabbat and we can sleep on Shabbat as well so that we should be well awake for the Seder night. Just don’t tell anyone why you are sleeping on Shabbat — that will be our little secret… It’s actually a halacha that you can sleep on Shabbat so that you will be awake for Saturday night as long as you don’t say that explicitly. This way it’s not considered an overt act of preparation that’s done on Shabbat for after Shabbat… but I digress! This year can be a year that we don’t need to drink four cups of coffee to remain awake and we can appreciate this night as it was intended to be.
And the truth is that that is how it should be every Seder night and every Friday night, as well. Rav Soloveitchik famously wrote about the missing “Erev Shabbos Jew” in America. He wrote that “it is not for the Sabbath that my heart aches, it is for the “eve of the Sabbath.” There are Sabbath-observing Jews in America, but there are not “erev-Sabbath” Jews who go out to greet the Sabbath with beating hearts and pulsating souls.” I think that some have interpreted Rav Soloveitchik’s message to be that in America, people observe Shabbat, but in Europe, people spent the entire Friday preparing for Shabbat. However, in America, on Fridays, many people go to work, return home just before Shabbat and then jump in the shower, get dressed and run to shul. There is no Erev Shabbat feeling in the streets. (As an aside, I don’t think we necessarily should fault anyone for doing that because many jobs require this commitment.)
However, I think that there is another important point that Rav Soloveitchik was making which is applicable even for those who rush home to prepare for Shabbat just before candle lighting. When we prepare extensively on Friday for Shabbat, we view Shabbat differently. We “greet the Sabbath with beating hearts and pulsating souls!” We don’t fall asleep Friday night into our chicken soup at the Shabbat table because we are simply exhausted from a long week.
Ultimately, it’s a question of how we view Shabbat and Yamim Tovim like Pesach. We work really hard during the week and then we stop on Shabbat and we stop on Yom Tov. Do we stop out of sheer exhaustion and then rest so that we can refresh ourselves in preparation for another week of work. Or do we stop and reflect?
And it also relates as to why the day begins at night. Don’t you find it strange that the day begins in the evening? Maybe you don’t find it strange because that’s how we’ve been taught. “Vayehi erev vayehi boker” — first there is evening and then there is morning, according to the simple reading of the text. But why is that so? Why do we start the day at night?
I think the answer is that if a day would consist of a day followed by a night, then I would argue that the day is significant. It is a time when we produce and create and develop and innovate and it is a time when we work hard. When the day is over then we don’t do any of these things. The night simply is the absence of the daytime activities. We simply go to sleep and we wake up the next morning to once again produce and create and develop and innovate and work hard.
However, the fact that a day consists of a night following a day means that the night is significant in its own right. It is not the absence of daytime activities. Because for the Jew, we don’t simply stop to rest. We stop to reflect. The nighttime, a time when we slow down our physical side, is a time to develop our spiritual side. It is a time to reflect and search for meaning. Perhaps I would argue in Rav Soloveitchik’s terminology that daytime is the time of Adam I who masters his environment, whereas nighttime is the time of Adam II who surrenders to his environment.
So, please, take a nice nap on Shabbat… but don’t tell anyone why you are doing it! And then be alert, awake and excited during the Seder and in the future remember how special this night was that you were alert, awake and excited. And then think about how perhaps we can become more of an Erev Shabbat Jew, maybe trying to steal some time Erev Shabbat to psychologically prepare ourselves for Shabbat to be a day when we don’t simply stop and sleep, but a day when we stop and greet… the Shabbat Queen. It can transform our Friday nights into something truly amazing!