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Tears

Whenever I see the movie “The Color Purple,” I cry.  Not through the whole movie, but at the end, when the sisters, Celie and Nettie are reunited.  Nettie has finally gotten the paperwork allowing her, after many years, to return from missionary work in Africa.  With her is Celie’s son, Adam, taken from her at birth: adopted by a pastor and his wife who Nettie accompanied on a mission to Africa.  It does not matter how many times I have seen that movie.  At that moment, the tears just pour out uncontrollably.  One time, Audrey had fallen asleep before me.  I found the movie on TV and watched the last 45 minutes while she slept.  The end came.  Sure enough, I was bawling like a baby.  Audrey woke up, looked at my face, and said, “Oh, are you watching ‘The Color Purple?’”

I cry on other occasions as well.  When our daughter Carrie was first put in our arms, I cried.  When my first grandchild, Amelia was born, we flew across the country from a vacation in California.  When we walked into the hospital room and saw her for the first time, I cried.  I did not cry at my dad’s funeral.  But when I stood on this bimah during Yizkor on the Yom Kippur just following his death, I read a letter I composed to Amelia about the great grandfather she would never meet, then I cried.  I got teary when I held my grandson Simon’s legs during his bris, and again when I did my other granddaughter, Libby’s baby naming at our home here in Tallahassee surrounded by family and close friends.  I cried when I learned that Audrey had to put our yellow lab, Xara, to sleep before I could get home from Camp Coleman to be with her at the end.

When we watched the American Olympic team enter the stadium in Brazil, I got tears in my eyes when I saw the diversity of the American team, blacks, whites, Hispanics, Muslims and who knows who else, surrounding the American flag carried by 5 time Olympian Michael Phelps.  I felt these tears of pride because no other country in the world could ever present that same picture.  Whenever I have not been to NY for a while, I tear up if I see the Statue of Liberty while entering the city.  Why?  Because I think of my dad passing by that statue when he immigrated to the United States as a 16 year old in September 1939.  I think of the relief he felt when he passed under Miss Liberty.  I cry every time I see the musical “Les Miserable.”  I cry at the end of “Toy Story 3.”  Heck, I cry at the Folger commercials that show the guy coming home and making coffee for his mom.

Are tears a sign of weakness?  Some would say yes.  There are instances when tears have destroyed the public’s perception of a person.  In February 1972, presidential candidate Ed Muskie was the subject of 2 pieces published by William Loeb in his newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader.  Loeb accused Muskie of using a slur against French Americans, at that time a significant voting block in New Hampshire (the proof he cited turned out to be a hoax by the way).  Loeb also accused Muskie’s wife of taking “unladylike” pleasure in drinking and telling jokes.  Muskie, with shoulders heaving and voice breaking, stood outside in a blizzard and called Loeb a “gutless coward.”  Reporters covering the event reported Muskie cried.  Aides said the water on his face was melted snowflakes. Muskie won the New Hampshire primary, but his campaign was ruined and many blamed the idea that a man who sheds tears in public is not fit to be president.

There are, however, instances when tears are the emotional crowning of a moment that creates a powerful group experience through collective empathy.  On July 4, 1939 Lou Gehrig gave one of the most famous speeches in baseball history.  The Yankees had organized an appreciation day for him, after Gehrig was driven from baseball by falling victim to ALS.  His descent into weakness was astounding.  Columnist Jim Murray called him “a symbol of indestructability – a Gibraltar in cleats.”  To baseball fans, his decline was unbelievable.  Even more so was his speech, in which he called himself the luckiest man alive.  He then wiped the tears welling in his eyes, and Babe Ruth, who had not spoken to him in 5 years threw his arms around Gehrig, hugging him.  Columnist Shirley Povich wrote about that day, “I saw strong men weep this afternoon.”  Watch the video of this.  If you are a baseball fan familiar with Gehrig, you will tear up.  I did.

There is, of course, a science behind tears.  We have 3 types of tears, basal – which are the worker tears that keep our cornea lubricated so our eyes don’t dry out.  Reflex tears wash irritations from our eyes like particles or vapors – the most obvious example is our reaction to onions.  But it is psychic tears that capture our attention, our wonder, our emotions.  For these tears are a response to strong emotions, either happy or sad, or suffering, or physical pain.  Apparently there is a natural pain killer in these tears – lencine encephalin – which actually helps us to feel better when we cry.

The Talmud has a lot to say about tears.  I will start with its explanation of the physical effects of tears:  Until the age of 40 crying improves your health, and the body replaces the fluid lost by tears.  After 40 the fluid is not replaced and crying begins to weaken you (Shabbat 151b).  Well, this may be interesting but it is not very scientific.  And not true.  Far more important, far more powerful, are the many passages that teach us what tears are really about – human emotion, human connection, human balance between joy and sorrow, and humanity in the image of God.

According to the Torah we are created in God’s image, and the Talmud teaches this includes the capacity to cry.  Two times the Talmud speaks of God weeping.  In Chagigah 5a, “Our Rabbis taught: Over three the Holy One, blessed be He, weeps every day: over him who is able to occupy himself with [the study of] the Torah and does not; and over him who is unable to occupy himself with [the study of] the Torah and does; and over a leader who domineers over the community.”  God cries because of us.  If we fail to connect with God through studying Torah even though we have the capability, God cries – I would imagine tears of sadness.  If we succeed in connecting through Torah, overcoming obstacles in order to do so, God cries – I would imagine tears of happiness.  If we are the victims of a narcissistic, domineering leader, who cares not for our welfare, God cries.  Further (Berachot 59a), God cries over our suffering and lets 2 tears fall into the ocean, creating a rumbling sound heard the world over.  God cries over our misfortune, our suffering, our lack of reaching out, our failure to form deeper connections with the Divine, and therefore with each other.

We are created with the same capacity to weep.  Our tears are the means by which we can break down barriers of heartlessness; by which we can feel empathy; through which we can connect with each other – in times of sadness and times of joy.  Tears open our path to God even more than our prayers.  We teach that our High Holidays are the time that the Gates of Prayer are open, that God hears our prayers for teshuvah.  As the end of Yom Kippur approaches those gates begin to close.  But the gates of weeping do not close (Berachot 32b).  The capacity to cry, to shed tears, breaks through our coldhearted tendencies.  It tells God we are ready to reach beyond our personal barriers, to connect with our friend, our neighbor, our fellow human.  It tells God we are searching for divine connection.  Tears are a challenge to our egos, to our separation from others.  When we cannot or will not cry, God weeps.

But we do weep.  We weep over lost dreams, over life’s disappointments.  The Talmud tells (Berachot 5b) this story about Rabbi Yochanan visiting Rabbi Elazar after Elazar had fallen ill.  He saw Rabbi Elazar lying in a dark room.  When Rabbi Yochanan was said to be so handsome his mere presence invited light, so when exposed his arm a light came into the room and he saw Elazar crying.  “Why are you crying?” he asked.  “If it is because you feel you did not learn enough Torah, remember we learned that God is pleased with the one who is able to offer little the same as God is pleased with the one who can offer much.   And if you are crying because of a lack of food, not everyone is able to have 2 tables.  If it is because of the children you have lost, know I have lost a child as well.”  Rabbi Elazar replied to him, “No, I cry because of the beauty that will rot in the earth.”  By this Elazar meant Rabbi Yochanan’s beauty.  He was crying not for himself, but because his own illness reminded him of his friend’s mortality.  Rabbi Yochanan nodded in understanding and said, “Are your afflictions dear to you?”  “Neither they nor their reward!”  Elazar replied.  “Give me your hand” Rabbi Yochanan said.  Elazar did so and Yochanan raised him up.

This is a beautiful story that teaches the power of comfort our presence provides when we visit someone who is ill or in distress.  It also teaches that the tears shed and shared amplify the connection between humans.  It deepens the experience.

When I was 13, the man who raised my dad, his uncle Richard Stern, was in the hospital after suffering a severe heart attack.  My dad was also in the hospital for minor surgery.  After visiting dad, mom asked if I wanted to see Uncle Richard as well.  Uncle Richard was like a grandfather to me, so of course I did.  I went up to his room and when I walked in, Uncle Richard began to cry.  Mom told me later he cried because he was upset I had to see him in such a weakened, degraded state.  Uncle Richard died just a few days later and I will never lose that image of him in his hospital bed, with tears streaming down his face.

The tears shed by Rabbi Elazar and by Uncle Richard were not over their own suffering, but over the connection of their suffering to the person visiting them.  “Tears are words the heart can’t express.”  The source of those words is unknown but the truth is obvious.  Communication by words can often be divisive.  Communication through tears is connective – to each other, to God.

But not all tears are tears of suffering or tears of mourning.  I am sure many of us have experienced the tears of joy, or the tears brought on by laughter.  That is how I best remember my oma, my grandma.  Oma would laugh so hard she would begin to cry.  We used to visit her with our daughters at her Miami Beach apartment.  One time we were visiting her when the girls were about 10 and 8.  She had prepared lunch for us but was looking for something she had taken out to put on the table.  She could not find it until one of the girls opened her freezer and found it along with a tissue box she had inexplicably left in the freezer.  They all started to laugh and Oma laughed so hard she had to sit down with tears rolling down her cheeks.  That is one of my favorite memories of my oma – my daughters laughing so hysterically with her that she cried.  As Hosea Ballou wrote, “Tears of joy are like the summer rain pierced by sunbeams.”

Which leads us to another truth.  We cannot really know or appreciate joy without knowing the depths of sadness.  The world is defined by balance, the yin and yang between different values, different emotions.  Our tears are often the connective piece between the extremes of joy and sorrow.  It says in Psalms 126:5,6:

“Those who sow in tears, shall reap with songs of joy.

Though he goes along weeping, carrying the seed-bag,

he shall come back with songs of joy carrying his sheaves.”

There are levels of interpretation to these verses.  The obvious is that we must suffer before coming to a place of joy.  Rabbinic tradition applies this Psalm to the sufferings of Israel.  In 586 BCE we suffered the destruction of the Temple, of Jerusalem, of a Jewish nation, culminating in the exile of our people in Babylon.  That was a moment of tears, as it says in Psalm 137:1 “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept, as we remembered Zion.”  The Hebrew Bible prophets taught, and the rabbis later affirmed, that the Babylonian conquest and exile were punishment for the sins of Israel, sins of injustice, of neglecting the poor, of turning society’s back on those who shed tears of need, who begged for help.  So Israel shed its own tears in exile.  But, the tears of exile are only a step along the path to redemption.  In Isaiah 40:1 we read “Comfort, O comfort My people, says God.” (nachamu, nachamu ami).  Isaiah goes on to teach that Jerusalem should take heart; the time of repentance is complete.  The succeeding chapters in Isaiah increase in their levels of joy, describing the rebuilding and the future hope of Jerusalem.

Yes, rabbinic tradition teaches Psalm 126 as a reference to the people Israel.  Our tears of sorrow were but a step along the path to redemption and joy.  But a reference to the trials and triumphs of Israel serves as a powerful metaphor for our personal experiences.  How many of us have walked paths of pain before reaching a place of joy?  How many of us have caused tears from a wrong we committed, before facing our personal redemption?  How many of us have felt we were in exile, from friends, from family, then suffering a painful confrontation before the relief and joy of reconciliation?  And how many times have the resolutions to any of our difficulties included the sharing of tears?

It is our tears that connect us.  They speak a language that needs no explanation or translation.  They break down the barrier of separation.  They water our paths of transformation leading to a moment of connection, of joy.  When we share our tears, we are mingling our lives together in an emotional and meaningful way, a way that leads us to empathy and understanding, to actually seeing the world, even for an instant through another’s eyes.  While we can never walk in another person’s shoes, we can share their tears.  Our tears water our hope for the future.

There is a midrash about a key moment in this morning’s Torah portion.  As Isaac is laying upon the altar, his father Abraham looms over him, knife drawn.  Isaac sees two things.  He sees the angels of heaven screaming for Abraham to lay down his knife and NOT slaughter Isaac.  And, he sees the tears of pain welling up in his father’s eyes from his grief over what he is about to do.  Isaac begins to weep, tears welling up in his own eyes.  Abraham’s tears begin to fall into Isaac’s eyes, the tears of father and son mingling together.  It is at that moment that Abraham hears the angelic voice breaking through his emotional barriers, crying out, “Do not harm that boy!”  It was the sharing of tears that enabled Abraham to leave his own head and finally understand what God really wanted, that he was NOT to kill Isaac.  It is the sharing of tears that enables us to really hear what others are trying to convey.

Tears are transforming.  Tears are humanizing.  Yes, we often sow in tears.  But may our tears clear the path to our songs of joy.  May they melt the ice around our hearts.  May they move us to appreciate how others suffer as we do.  May they water fields of understanding and empathy, from which we can build a better humanity.  May our tears for each other mirror God’s tears for us.  Amen.

Shanah Tovah

 

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