Excerpted from Erica Brown’s ‘In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks’ Click here to buy the book
Ours is an age which has forgotten how to cry.” Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University, offered this observation in a sermon he gave on Rosh HaShana called “Three Who Cried.” Rosh HaShana is a time when many of us cry over ourselves and our wrongs, and sometimes over the state of the world. Rabbi Lamm speaks of three types of tears: the tears that come when our myths of absolute security and certainty are shattered; the tears of those who resign themselves to hopelessness; and the tears of those who cry over reality, not from frustration or resignation, but from a determination to change and renew that reality. Jewish crying fits the last of these categories: the act of crying, according to Rabbi Lamm, is the beginning of transformation – the tears are those of protest and resolute purpose.
But Rosh HaShana is not the only crying time of the year where we have perhaps forgotten the meaning and the power of tears. Eikha returns to the motif of crying again and again. We can visualize Jeremiah, its attributed author, weeping ceaselessly as he writes. He tells us as much:
My eyes are spent with tears, my heart is in tumult; my being melts away over the ruin of my poor people. (Lam. 2:11)
When I cry and plead, He shuts out my prayer. (Ibid. 3:8)
My eyes shed streams of water over the ruin of my poor people. (Ibid. 3:48)
My eyes shall flow without cease, without respite until the Lord looks down and beholds from heaven. (Ibid. 3:49)
Do not shut your ear to my groan, my cry. (Ibid. 3:56)
We hear a familiar refrain in Jeremiah’s words: God is ignoring our tears. We sense multiple levels of pain in these verses. There is the anguish of destruction which prompts tears and then there is the additional weeping that occurs when God ignores the tears. Perhaps there is no pain greater than ignored pain. Just watch a child fall in a playground. The child in pain looks up to see if a parent is watching. With no parent to watch, he holds back the tears and continues to play. But when he sees that his mother is indeed watching, he bursts into tears, waiting for a nurturing embrace and someone to brush them away. Tears are one of the most powerful, wordless ways we communicate our feelings to others. To know that someone hears those tears and ignores them adds an additional element of suffering: “Do not shut your ear to my groan, my cry.”
But what about God’s tears? Does God ever cry about us? Do we ever ignore His cries? In the opening to Eikha Raba, an ancient rabbinic commentary on the book of Lamentations, there is an interpretation of the verse, “And God, the Lord of Hosts, called the day for crying and eulogizing” (Proem/Petiĥta 24). When our enemies broke into the Mikdash and conquered it, God said, “I no longer have a place in this world and will remove My Presence from it, back to its original resting place.” And at that same time, God cried and said, “What have I done? I placed My Divine Presence in the lower world for the sake of Israel and now that they have sinned, I have returned to My original dwelling.” In the midrash, God then goes with the ministering angels to see the destruction of the Mikdash from up close, and He cries again, “Woe is Me over My House. My children, where are you? My priests, where are you? My loved ones, where are you?”
At this point, God speaks to Jeremiah of what He is experiencing. “Today I am like a man who made his only son a wedding canopy, and he died in the middle of the ceremony.” God then tells Jeremiah to go and call upon his ancestors Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses at their burial places since “they know how to cry.” Jeremiah says that he does not know where Moses is buried (since we are told in Deuteronomy 34:6 that no one knows the location of Moses’ grave). God tells him to go to the edge of the Jordan River and call out “Son of Amram, son of Amram.” Jeremiah does this and asks Moses to petition God on behalf of Israel.
Moses asks Jeremiah why, but Jeremiah does not know (this midrash positions Jeremiah before the destruction. Here, the prophet has been denied the power to see the future). Moses then asks one of the ministering angels whom he knew from the time of Sinai to explain Jeremiah’s request and is told of the upcoming destruction: “The Temple has been destroyed and Israel has been exiled.” At that moment Moses begins to cry and petition so that his tears wake the patriarchs, and the angels rend their garments, put their hands on their heads, and scream and cry so that their tears reach the gates of the Temple. When God sees this spectacle, He declares a day of mourning.
This midrash explains the etiology of Tisha B’Av in an imaginative rendering of how tears prompted God to declare a day of mourning – and also describes how Jeremiah had to learn how to cry. He needed to take lessons from a master, Moses. And Moses needed the angels to cry with him so that the tears would reach the Temple. Finally, looking at all of this emotional unraveling, God Himself was also moved to tears.
Tisha B’Av is Jewish crying-time. It is a day when we look back at persecution and shed tears over the mess. Once a year we have to revisit a painful past where persecutions meld and merge into a continuous timeline of tragedy. We fast. We pray. We think. We cry.
What if we have forgotten how to cry? Though we may feel like crying, we so often hold back tears. Rabbi Lamm reflects on this in relation to Rosh HaShana, but his words are easily transferable to Tisha B’Av:
Once upon a time the Maĥzor [High Holy Day prayer-book] was stained with tears; today it is so white and clean – and cold. Not, unfortunately, that there is nothing to cry about…It is rather that we have embarrassed ourselves into silence…And so the unwept tears and unexpressed emotions and the unarticulated cries well up within us and seek release. What insight the Kotzker Rebbe had when he said that when a man needs to cry, and wants to cry, but cannot cry – that is the most heart-rending cry of all.
For us to feel the impact of the Three Weeks deeply, we have to allow ourselves the full range of sadness: grief, loss, remorse, guilt and confusion. We don’t have to teach ourselves to cry. We just have to give ourselves permission.
Kavana for the Day
Has there ever been a time when you cried over the Jewish people? Think of that moment and what prompted it. What was the trigger that pushed you over the invisible emotional boundary line? Open up the book of Eikha and skim its verses. Identify the one that pains you the most. On Tisha B’Av, go back to that verse and read it several times until you feel that you have taken it in fully.
If you cannot cry over it, but want to learn how to cry, think of someone you could turn to in order to learn how to cry. What prompted that choice of person? What makes some people “good criers” and others less able to express emotion fully? When we give ourselves permission to cry and to experience the full range of pain that Jeremiah expresses, we also learn how to experience the intensity of joy.