As I've written before, I'm not such a big fan of the holidays. And despite my cynical grumblings about Pesach, except for maybe Simchas Torah, I consider Shavuos to be the worst offender of them all. It combines some of the most resented ideas and experiences of my past into one hearty cheesecake-and-torah-filled day.
The most obvious and basic thing that bothers me about Shavuos is that I'm supposed to stay up and learn. These days I'm not at all compelled to follow that minhag, but throughout my Yeshiva years and beyond it was mandatory to participate in that hallowed tradition. As beautiful and inspiring as that custom may sound to others, to me (and to the many kindred spirits who felt similarly) it was pure hell. Despite the public façade that I put on about it, I really couldn't stand learning. In my earlier years, I didn't have the courage to admit this to myself, preferring to pretend that I truly enjoyed it all, and that I just needed to try harder in order to reach that elusive stage where I'd succeed at it and enjoy the learning, but over the years I realized that the truth was that I was miserable at it, had no real interest in it whatsoever, and really would have preferred to never open a gemara again for the rest of my life. Despite this emerging awareness, and notwithstanding that it was plainly obvious to all that I sucked at this learning thing, I steadfastly kept up the proper image. To my peers and rabbeim I was as devoted and enthusiastic about "klerring chakiras" and finding pshat in tosfos as anyone. Well... that's probably a bit of an exaggeration. A more accurate assessment would be to say that it was pretty self-evident that most of the guys who weren't so good at learning weren't really as interested in it as the true lamdanim, and it was probably obvious to all that I fell into that category. But as we all knew, in order to maintain any self-respect in that society, one needed to preserve the image of being interested in learning, and as I was always ready and willing to compensate for my lack of true learning ability, I unfailingly made sure to always keep up at least a reasonable modicum of that superficial image.
Yet, beneath the surface, I was becoming increasingly frustrated with all the "learning" I was forced to endure: The pre-shiur preparation where I had to pretend that I was "making a leining" and had some idea what was going on. The mind-numbingly boring shiurim that I never understood a word of. The afternoon and night sedarim where I had to review the shiur and play the game of pretending to have an inkling of what had transpired in the classroom earlier that day. I got quite good at it actually. It takes some skill to ascertain when one is supposed to nod along with feigned comprehension, or when one is permitted to express some slight confusion about an issue, or when to inject the appropriate buzzword into the discussion, all while not really having a clue as to what the hell is truly going on.
Over the years, I managed to keep this all to myself, dutifully sitting through the long sedarim, showing up to the shiurim, and always making the requisite token effort when it was expected of me. Even during the yeshiva vacations, when yeshiva bochurim are allowed to be less involved in actively learning, I made sure to put in the obligatory daily one-hour seder that was expected of me, greatly appreciating the reduction in my societally-enforced enslavement. Despite the overabundance of divrei torah and davening that I was constantly subjected to during the yomim tovim, it was a welcome reprieve from the endless learning that I normally had to deal with in a typical day.
And even though over the years there was an increasing tendency to get us to earnestly devote ourselves to our learning even during our vacation periods - whether they may have been a regular shabbos weekend, a holiday break, or even a summer vacation - those periods were still generally permitted a certain laxness that wasn't tolerated during the normal yeshiva zman (semester). The Rabbis tried to get us to take it more seriously, but they still had to allow for the fact that it was actually a break, and as such we were allowed to get away with some amount of neglecting our studies.
But Shavuos was different. Shavuos was supposed to be all about learning! And not only was I being denied the chance of obtaining a brief recess from the never-ending learning, learning, learning, on top of that I was being told that I had to be more involved in it then ever! I didn't just have to sit through an extra long seder like on a typical shabbos afternoon where (due to the typically reduced faculty) I might even be able to get away with taking a nap and where even the most ardent lamdanim appreciated getting a few extra zzzz's, but I had to stay up all night, having to pretend more than ever to be interested in this obsession that I had no interest for whatsoever. Learning on Shavuos wasn't supposed to be like learning on any other day. It was supposed to be a whole different experience. We were supposed to be so excited about it, more eager than ever, anxious to surrender ourselves to our holy tomes, trying to recreate the experience of Matan Torah and rededicating ourselves to our precious learning.
So I faked it more than ever. I threw myself into the preparations just like all the others, scheduling chavrusos throughout the entire night, preparing myself for this momentous occasion, and getting myself so excited that I actually almost believed that this Shavuos I was at long last going to break through the barrier and finally become a proper learner.
But alas, it was not meant to be. Shavuos night learning usually turned into an almost exact replica of a typical learning seder for me. I probably began with a bit of a more enthusiastic start, but it wasn't long before my interest waned, the snack-filled tables beckoned, and I convinced my chavrusa that it was time for a quick break. And then I somehow had to figure out a way to keep my interest (and body) up for the next 3 hours.
While that explains the practical side of what annoys me about Shavuos, a much deeper and more disturbing reaction is rooted in the ideas of what Shavuos is all about. Or rather, how the yom tov was presented during those formative years in yeshiva. Because, like I said, we all knew that Shavuos was about "Matan Torah". And Matan Torah is about learning Torah. And learning Torah is what we, as "bnei torah", were all about! This was a holiday that was meant to be a celebration of everything that we stood for! The lead-up to the chag was continuously filled with shmuezen and shiurim about how this was the most important day for us. About how Shavuos determines our Torah growth for the coming year. About how we were about to rededicate ourselves to God's Holy Torah. About how this was an opportunity to "acquire our portion of Torah" for ourselves. About how this was a chance to finally celebrate what mattered most in the world - LEARNING TORAH!!! And as was usually the case in those days when I eagerly ate up all the seemingly brilliant nuggets of wisdom that my rabbeim fed me, I bought it all, hook, line, and sinker.
But inside my heart, beneath the thin veneer of my enthusiastic demeanor, there was a part of me that knew so well that all this excitement was insincere. I didn't truly feel joyful about learning Torah. I wasn't even good at it. My failure at learning Torah was the cause of so much of my misery; it was why I wasn't respected by my peers, it was an endless source of embarrassment and frustration, and it was the obstacle to so much of what I wanted in my life. And even though I still bought into the idea that I was supposed to do it (and love doing it), I knew that I couldn't stand it at all.
These heretical notions that I tried so valiantly to deny were always present inside of me, but the surrounding culture that I was living in at the time was very effective at getting me to stifle them and very successfully encouraged me to instead pursue the path expected of me by my society.
But despite their success at repressing my general dissatisfaction, there was something so disturbing to me about Shavuos that once I became aware of it, no amount of brainwashing would let me deny it: If Shavuos was all about a celebration of learning Torah, then Shavuos was essentially a celebration of the source of my misery. To deny and stifle my pain was one thing. But to profess gratitude and appreciation for this horrible burden that was the cause of that pain was something that my heart would just not let me accept. No matter how many shmuezen and shiurim I heard on it. This is what Shavuos was really about to me. Ever since I had this realization the mere thought of the holiday of Shavuos would put a scowl on my face.
This is why I can't stand Shavuos. Besides the annoying issue of being denied a rare break and having to continue my general fake Torah excitement, Shavuot brought with it the need to fake it even more, and to top it off with a phony celebration of something incredibly abhorrent to my inner self.
Truth be told, these sentiments expressed above were not fully formed through those years in yeshiva. In the earlier years there were stirrings of some of these feelings combined with a general undercurrent of dissatisfaction and frustration that I didn't know how to give proper expression to. Over time, they grew increasingly strident, becoming more recognizably resentful and bitter, but still probably not able to be given full expression until after I made a certain psychological break from that world.
And that's how I felt for the past few years. As Shavuos came along this year, I had no expectations that I would enjoy it at all. My rough plans for the day were to avoid most of the holiday stuff, trying to turn the day into a simple relaxing shabbat-like experience with no extra significance, and just get by it easily and simply. Turns out I was in for a surprise. Shavuot this year was actually very enjoyable and I had an amazingly wonderful holiday. But I'll save the details of that for my next post.