Immediately preceding the retelling of Ma’amad Har Sinai, the Torah states (Devarim 5:4), “Pannim BePannim Dibeir Hashem Imachem BeHar MiToch HaEish,” “Face to Face Hashem spoke with you on the mountain from amid the fire.” Seforno comments on the phrase ‘Pannim BePannim’ that Bnei Yisrael are fully alert when they receive the prophecy of the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Commandments. However, the Midrash states that Bnei Yisrael initially oversleep when they were about to receive the Torah. This Midrash is the source for the very common practice of staying up and studying Torah the entire night of Shavuot. However, the celebrated question that people raise regarding this is how is it that Bnei Yisrael fall asleep when they are about to receive the Torah? Rav Shimon Schwab presents a very interesting answer. He writes that Bnei Yisrael fall asleep because they believe that the only way they can hear the prophecy of Hashem is through a dream like most prophets do. Therefore, their falling asleep is completely intentional and seemingly innocent. Why, then, do we still maintain the custom of staying up all night to make up for this mistake? Seemingly Bnei Yisrael did nothing wrong!
Rav Schwab continues to explain that even though their falling asleep was not absolutely terrible, it still was inappropriate. The sin was that Bnei Yisrael underestimated themselves. They thought that they could interact with Hashem only while sleeping, when in reality they were on a higher level and could interact with Hashem face to face.
There is a famous story of when the Netziv was a young boy. He was walking down the stairs when he heard his parents talking about the fact that their son wasn’t doing well in school and that maybe they should take him out of Yeshiva and have him work as a farmer in the fields. The Netziv ran downstairs and begged them to let him stay in school. It was after this event that the Netziv utilized his ability and became the great Tzadik that he was. This story demonstrates how someone who was underestimated seized opportunities and truly took advantage of his potential.
Hashem takes us out of Mitzraim, despite the fact that we were on the forty-ninth level of Tumah, impurity, because He sees the spark of great potential that is within us. If we underestimate our own capabilities like Bnei Yisrael do and we do not live up to our potential, we fail to live up to Hashem’s expectations. Hopefully we can internalize this lesson, and we will make every effort to utilize our potential in our lives.