Have you ever overslept for something important?
That early morning wakeup for the final exam, to catch a flight to the long-awaited vacation or the big wedding day.
For most people, it’s pretty hard to oversleep the morning of anything important; it’s hard to get any sleep on the eve of such anticipated moments. The anxiety that keeps you up is the same anxiety that gets you straight out of bed.
And yet, our sages teach us that that’s precisely what happened to the Jewish People camped at the foot of Mount Sinai; they had been eagerly awaiting Moshe’s return with the Ten Commandments, the culminating moment of Creation, and they overslept.
This anecdote is one of the sources of the treasured custom of staying up the night of Shavuos immersed in Torah study. When the Creator offers you a piece of eternity, so the thinking goes, who really needs to sleep? If you knew tomorrow was the second coming of the Creator or Moshiach, you wouldn’t be getting any sleep. And yet, the Jewish People and humanity’s spiritual awakening starts with a snooze.
Let’s remember that in this multitude of millions of men, women, and children who overslept is the litany of greats and sages who appear in the Torah. Miriam, Elazar, Itamar, Nadav, Avihu, Pinchas, Caleb, the tribal chiefs, and the sages.
How did everyone oversleep?
The Arugas HaBosem suggests that our intuition that such a thing doesn’t happen naturally is correct; it was a supernatural slumber, the kind the Creator sets on the first man – וַיַּפֵּל ה’ אֱלֹהִים תַּרְדֵּמָה עַל־הָאָדָם וַיִּישָׁן.
R’ Meilech Biderman teaches that the Creator deliberately establishes the archetype of Torah at Sinai precisely this way, establishing for all generations that you can be late, tired, and still half asleep, but still be invited and expected to attend Mount Sinai.
You might think you’re not ready, you might truly be unready, but readiness isn’t a requirement.
But their unreadiness wasn’t simply an internal function of tiredness or lack of preparation. When they woke and showed up at the foot of the mountain, they encountered an external environment shrouded in darkness and fog – חֹשֶׁךְ / עָנָן / עֲרָפֶל.
The darkness and fog over Sinai are the uncertainty, mystery, and awe that often accompany profound spiritual experiences, but the Chiddushei HaRim highlights how this is not just a possible feature of our spiritual experience or an obstacle to overcome; it is an integral feature and part of the essential nature of the work we are called to do. The mountain was obscured in the way the path of our spiritual journey is often obscured. But they showed up just the same.
In a world where it’s all too easy to feel distant or disconnected from our heritage, our spirituality, or even from each other, the act of showing up can be a profound statement of commitment and engagement. The Jewish people overslept, but they still showed up to receive the Torah. They were there, ready to engage and participate, even if they were not perfectly prepared. We, too, can show up and engage with our spirituality, even in the face of uncertainty and mystery.
The people showed up despite oversleeping, and when they did, the mountain was obscured. Both teachings reject the notion of being perfectly prepared or fully awake to engage. They suggest that the act of engagement itself, of showing up, is valuable and meaningful, even if we are not perfectly prepared.
Uncertainty and mystery are often part of our spiritual journeys. We may not always feel fully prepared or awake. We may feel unsure, lost, tired, or even afraid. But the act of showing up, of being present and ready to engage, is the first and most important step towards connection, meaning, and growth.
And it’s enough.
You might be late to the party, but you’re still invited.