At Sinai

By Siân Gibby | Issue Date: May 2011

Sunrise at Sinai. Photo: Pet-RA few weeks ago I had my friend Dahlia on the phone, subjecting her to my annual bitching about my least-favorite holiday, Passover.

“I adore Pesah,” she said.

“I know you do,” I replied. “I like Shavuot.”

“Shavuot!” she said scornfully. “It’s like the ugly girl at the party that everyone feels obliged to dance with.”

Most born Jews, like Dahlia, have the warmest feelings for Pesach, whereas among converts, like me, you’ll find a surprising number who prefer different hagim: Yom Kippur or even, as in my case, the neglected yontif step-child, Shavuot. “I like Pesah because it’s all food and family,” Dahlia said. “You like Shavuot because it’s all Heschel.” True. Jewish food and family can be hard for converts to connect with. And Abraham Joshua Heschel’s mysticism permeates my love for everything about my Jewish life. And Shavuot more than many other holidays confronts us with that mysticism. If you take Shavuot seriously you have to grapple with some tough concepts for rationalists, like the idea that all Jews, ever, were literally present at Sinai to receive Torah. I’m a born mystic, and I love this. It means that I am no less a Jew than my rabbi, or Barbra Streisand. Like them, I was at Sinai.

Another happenstance that dovetails with my mysticism is the fact that many Jewish holidays mandate altered states of consciousness: On Purim drunkenness is required; Yom Kippur’s fast mirrors the classic path to shamanistic otherness. And there’s sleeplessness on Shavuot. It may be that this aspect of Shavuot, the part that is hardest for me, is paradoxically its most-appealing element. I do not do well on less than eight hours of sleep. All through college I got work done during regular hours without having to resort to school’s fabled all-nighters. I dislike travel precisely because of jetlag, which renders me close to psychotic. Yet I look forward to the Tikkun Leil Shavuot all year, even though it’s intensely uncomfortable.

I once took a class where we studied midrashim about the relationship of Jews to the Torah. My favorites were those about the scholar as the Torah’s lover; how he waits in the courtyard for a glimpse of her behind her curtain. She peeks out, showing just enough of her face to arouse his love and desire, then hides herself. These tales imply that the Torah is alive and possesses consciousness, one that might in some sense be more real than our own. “What if,” my rabbi said, “what if all we are is a dream that the Torah is having?”

I read in an article on sleeplessness this hypothesis: “Because crucial mechanisms for REM are in the oldest parts of our brains in evolutionary terms … [scientists have] postulated that dreaming may actually predate our more evolved form of waking consciousness and cognition, that our ancestors lived in a kind of primitive dream consciousness.”

I loathe fatigue, but it’s worth enduring the pins and needles behind my eyelids, the sallow skin and lightheadedness of the tikkun all-nighter, to get a taste of that ancient, Torahlike consciousness. It’s Rumi saying, Don’t sleep: be wakeful and attentive to God. It also reminds me of other activities that deprive us of sleep: midnight sex, vigils at the bedside of death, or the hours of childbirth’s labor. Surely being awake within that time between dusk and dawn touches some of the strangeness, the otherworldliness of God.

When I went the first time to the tikkun, I was introduced to the moment in the Jewish holiday cycle that I have come to love most: at about 5:00AM when we go out of the synagogue into the dim Upper West Side streetscape and digest the previous seven hours of Torah while we wait for it to be light enough to daven Shaharit. Then, wordlessly, we re-enter the synagogue and hear the Decalogue chanted. That first year, dazed, I didn’t know what to expect, so I took a bathroom break during the morning davening, and as I came back into the sanctuary I became aware that my heart was pounding as if it would burst. What was happening? My addled brain flailed. Was it cardiac arrest? Was I in love? Then I became aware of the words coming from the bimah, washing over me and the assembled group in which I stood. “Anokhi…” and realized I was at Sinai. Again.

This article originally appeared in Tablet Magazine.