By Larry Gordon
How often during the year or, for that matter, during our lifetimes do we have something between a mandate and a minhag to stay awake all night? For many, that is the custom and tradition that we practice as a way of commemorating the events of 3,326 years ago when the Torah was formally presented to the Jewish people at Har Sinai.
Granted, it is somewhat of a struggle to remain up with eyes wide open all night, particularly after ingesting a high-carb yom tov meal just an hour or so prior to descending on our local shuls, listening to lectures, or learning privately with study partners.
Being up all night is a great thing so long as it is just about once a year and it does not turn into a steady habit. After all these years, there is even a sense of triumph as thin wisps of dawn begin to make an appearance on the horizon and, though you are battling heavy eyelids, you begin to feel a sense of accomplishment in that you successfully joined so many in this magical celebration of the receiving of the Torah.
This all began at the original Kaballas HaTorah when, according to our commentaries, the Jewish people camped out around the mountain and actually went to sleep in preparation for receiving the Torah. The popular thought process at the time apparently was that Torah is an exclusively spiritual endeavor that the neshamah, or Jewish soul, can best relate to. But therein was one extreme and important miscalculation: the ancient Jews were supposed to stay awake for the big event, as the structure and design of Torah is directed at the Jewish soul that is encased in this spectacular creation that is the human body.
This thought, by the way, reminds me of my most memorable Shavuos night, which took place exactly 22 years ago. I was indeed up all night and most of the next day, but it was not because I was marking the acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people at Sinai.
If you check your calendars, you will notice that back in 1995, erev Shavuos was on a Shabbos, with Sunday and Monday the actual chag. Around here, in these parts, that is what we refer to as the proverbial three-day yom tov. No matter how you look at it—from the perspective of davening and learning, from the food angle, or the running of the air conditioning for three days straight—those hat-trick yomim tovim are usually a challenge.
But my Shavuos of 1995 did not involve any of that. Instead, my wife and I entered into the dark side of the moon as far as communications with the outside world is concerned over yom tov, with her in the ninth month of a pregnancy that she was certain would not impact on the three-day yom tov. Were we ever wrong!
It was a beautiful warm Shabbos afternoon and we were sitting outside our Brooklyn home with neighbors, just watching the day go by as the other kids played on our front lawn with friends. Okay, so she felt some discomfort here and there, but she dismissed it as probably Braxton Hicks contractions, a name assigned to a deceptive type of labor pains that are not the real thing.
But as darkness descended and Shabbos ended while yom tov slid into place, it became clear that—with all due respect to Dr. John Braxton Hicks—this, my friends, was the real thing.
We already had four children, so we were veterans and knew the drill. Nothing could surprise us anymore. If we had to go to the hospital in the city, what were we going to do for 48 hours until yom tov ended? Well, it wasn’t a matter of what we were going to do; she was going to most likely give birth and then rest in the hospital. But what was I going to do over those two days? We had dealt with births in the middle of the night before, but not over a three-day yom tov.
Well, at about 11 p.m. my wife decided it was time to go to Lenox Hill Hospital in the city, where she would meet her doctor. I called a car service and deposited the other kids at a neighbor. Even though it was almost midnight on a Saturday night, the streets were teeming with people streaming their way to shuls and yeshivas to spend the night learning. But there we were, stopped at a light on Kings Highway with people crossing the street squinting their eyes, looking inside, wondering what those frum-looking people were doing in a car on Shavuos night. If it were me looking into the car, I would have solved the puzzle on the first try. Those people were going to the hospital to have a baby. End of story.
It was a warm night in the city. The temperature lingered around 80 degrees through the night and close to 100 degrees during the day over the next two days. Baruch Hashem, our son, who would be named after my father, Nison, was born at 10 a.m. the next day, the first day of yom tov. We couldn’t call anyone or tell anyone. We just celebrated privately and quietly. Once things settled down, I started my search for a place to get some rest. It was a long night and this was turning into a long day.
I inquired about the key to a bikur cholim room where people like me could get some rest on a Shabbos or a yom tov. Everyone in the hospital knew what I was referring to and it took just ten minutes until I had the keys to an apartment that was on East 78th, just around the corner from the hospital.
It was my good fortune that there was no one else in the apartment. I was exhausted and lay down for a few minutes to rest when I realized that the air conditioning was not on and it was at least 120 degrees inside the apartment. As I lay there, it began to feel like something akin to an oven and I realized that this was not going to work. There was an air conditioner in the window but no one to put it on for me. Could I have found someone to do that? Well, maybe. Did I? No.
I went back to the hospital, which had some air, and told my wife that conditions in the apartment were impossible. I was going to head down to East 62nd Street to the Fifth Avenue Synagogue for Minchah. I told her that if I did not come back that night it was because I found somewhere to stay and that I would be back at noon the next day after davening.
In shul that night I met my lifesaving angel, Cantor Yossi Malovany. We had met several times in the past, and the moment he eyed me sitting in back of the shul he immediately inquired what I was doing there. He invited me to his apartment for dinner after shul and insisted that I stay there overnight. I had told my wife that something like this might happen, but in my heart I really did not imagine that it would.
I cannot begin to adequately describe what an excellent and lavish yom tov meal we had. In addition, a couch in a nearby den opened into a large bed and I slept that night like a little baby. “This is excellent,” I thought, “but I have to get back to the hospital so that Esta does not grow too concerned about where I ended up.”
I went to shul with the chazzan that morning, another hot and humid day in the city. It was the second day of yom tov and before the Mussaf prayer I heard the most stirring Yizkor delivered by Cantor Malovany. Thinking about my new son up in the hospital and reciting the prayer that conjured up memories of my father was just too much. I sat in the shul pew conflicted like never before. It was five years since my father passed away, and I so badly wanted this—and here I was, a ball of happy and sad all rolled into one.
I walked back to the hospital after shul with sandwiches that Beatrice Malovany had prepared for my wife. The hospital food left a great deal to be desired, and that homemade food made a big difference. I sat in the hospital for a few hours and then it was back to shul for Minchah and Ma’ariv and then to the Malovanys for Havdalah and back to the hospital.
I called home to share the news with the family and then took a taxi back to Brooklyn. I spent the night at home with the kids and then it was back to the city in the morning to bring home mother and baby.
This is the Shavuos that I can still recall in every minute detail. During that first night in the hospital over Saturday night, I met a couple from Far Rockaway who had been in the hospital since Friday night. That means he was there walking in circles for a full three days. Now that was rough, I thought at the time, and I still think so today.
Sure, it was a long time ago but is still very fresh in my mind. Those were great days that I will always value and think about, especially on that first night of yom tov as I sit there struggling to keep my eyes open and stay up all night for a different reason. v
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