Moshe brought the people forth from the camp towards God (Shmot 20:17). Why is it that Moshe had to bring them out? Why did they not come out on their own? For sure, the simplest interpretation is that they were scared to come out, as the verse (16) itself says (commentary of 12th century Tosafist, Rav Yosef Bekhor Shor). However, interestingly enough, a midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah to 1:12) suggests that they did not come out because they were asleep; so asleep that God needed to set off an alarm clock (as per v.16) to wake them up. Rabbi Chakhinai even offers (in another midrash, Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 40 (41)) that Moshe needed to run around to wake them up in the late morning, telling them the groom is waiting for the bride!
But why were they sleeping until late morning? Had they not been told that God would be appearing to them all this very day (v.11)? Shouldn’t they have made efforts to get up extra early so that they would be ready, waiting for God, rather than the other way around? Had they forgotten? The great defender of the Jews, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809), says that was hardly the case. Clearly, their intent to go and sleep was lesheim shamayim. After days of preparing themselves to receive God in their midst and the Torah God was going to impart to them, they were exhausted. Wanting to be bright and clear-headed when being in the presence of God, they went to rest (cited in Avodat Yisrael by Rav Yisrael Hoffstein of Koznitz (1736-1814) on Shavuot).
Rav Shmuel Borenstein (Shem MiShmuel; 1856-1926) sees different purpose in their going to sleep. The midrash has already taken note that sleep has the power to transform the person into a new being by the time he or she wakes up in the morning. It is this thinking that lies behind the midrash describing the Israelites as going to sleep – wishing to be a totally new creation when receiving the Torah, they purposefully went to sleep the night before.
The positive approach to the Israelites’ sleep the night before matan Torah (the Revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai) presented up till now seems to be in opposition to the view of Rabbi Yitzchak (Shir HaShirim Rabbah). In his opinion, God was not pleased to have to come and wake them up. Why did I come and no one is here? I called and no one answered (using the language of Yeshayah 50:2)?
On the one hand, one could leave the various midrashim in conflict, as they do often present opposing points of view (Tosafot, Chullin 60a, s.v. pasuk). Rav Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1903-1994; Sha’arei HaMoadim, Chag Shavuot, p. 356), though, does an admirable job of reconciling the different ideas into one cohesive thought (this thought appears on the website of Yeshivat HaHesder Ma’alot Ya’akov here and elsewhere), and even turning Rabbi Yitzchak’s negative perspective into positive constructive criticism. Basing himself on the writings of Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812; Tanya, Likutei Amarim 37), he argues that the soul is capable of achieving a higher level of understanding when not clothed in its earthly garb. In sleep, when the soul separates from its earthly garb and rises to the upper realms, it has a greater ability to achieve understanding. In advance of receiving the Torah, the Israelites thought to prepare themselves in just such a way to achieve higher levels of understanding. It was their goal to separate themselves from physical reality, and this they would do by going to sleep, giving freedom to the soul. God, although appreciating their intentions—God even went to the length of keeping the bugs away from them so that they could continue in their sleep (as per Rabbi Yudan, cited in Shir HaShirim Rabbah)—wished to teach them that God’s Torah is not meant to be used in this way. On the contrary, the Torah finds its ultimate purpose when operating in and on the real world in which we live. Thus, the best way to prepare ourselves for engaging with this Torah is not by distancing ourselves from the elements of this world, but rather by remaining fully engaged and awake.
While all these insights into the midrash leave one with much to think about, what compelled it to interpret the verse in this way, to suggest the Israelites were sleeping? I believe an answer might lie in the verse in Shir HaShirim (1:12) serving as the midrash’s launch point. I suggest it is reading the verse like this – “before the king was at his wedding celebration (see Rashi), the influence of spikenard was wafting in the air,” meaning, before matan Torah, it was as if spikenard had been spread around the camp of the Israelites. Of all the uses this plant has been put to through the years in its various forms, the most relevant here is its use as a sedative and calming agent. While I have admittedly not found any mention of this use in the works of chazal, I must wonder if this property of the plant was known to the rabbis of the midrash when they suggested that as the smell of spikenard was wafting in the air, as per the verse, the Israelites were sleeping.
Rabbi Abe Weschler served as the rabbi of the Old Broadway Synagogue in New York, and as chaplain in the US Air Force.
He is currently serving as the long-time editor for the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, and is also an Assistant to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force on the Golan Heights, Israel, where he lives with his wife and family.