Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays
Ours is an age which has forgotten how to cry. Whether at Rosh Hashanah services or Tish‘ah be-Av kinot, whether at a funeral or a theater, tears are conspicuous by their absence. Once upon a time, the mahzor was stained with tears; today, it is so white and clean—and cold. Not, unfortunately, that there is nothing to cry about. A generation which saw the finest of its sons and daughters destroyed in the most terrible massacre in recorded history; a generation which, the more it probes the heavens, the more it ignores the heart—a generation of this sort has much to cry about. How many people here today do not have their private woes, their secret sorrows?
It is rather that we have embarrassed ourselves into silence. It has become a style of the times to restrain our tears on the theory that maybe that way the pain will go away, that by refusing to display genuine emotion, the agonizing facts of our lives will be altered. But we are, nevertheless, human beings. And so the unwept tears and unexpressed emotions and 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.
Granted that crying is an experience we ought not to deny ourselves. But is there not a difference in how and why people cry? Is there not a vast difference between the various types of weeping and what motivates them?
I believe there is. And Rosh Hashanah suggests three separate causes for tears, two that are vain and unfortunate, and a third that is heroic and constructive.
The three types are symbolized by three biblical characters, all women, whose tears are recalled on this holiday. They are the mother of Sisera, Hagar, and Rachel.
Sisera was a Canaanite general, leader of an army that was, so to speak, highly mechanized compared to the peasant people of Israel which it attacked. This arrogant pagan warlord was defeated by the Israelites, who were led by Deborah. In Deborah’s song of triumph, she paints the picture of Sisera’s mother, usually overconfident, this time anxiously awaiting the return of her son (Judg. 5:28): Be-ad ha-halon nishkafah—she peers intently out the window, a nagging question burning within her; maddua boshesh rikhbo lavo—why is his chariot so late in coming, why do the wheels of his chariot tarry? She answers, soothing herself: My son and his soldiers are busy dividing the spoils of their great victory; they are splitting up the dyed cloths, the embroidered garments, the damsels of conquered Israel. But the delusion cannot last forever. The truth must emerge. Her son is dead. Va-teyabbev—the mother of Sisera breaks out into uncontrolled sobbing. There were one hundred sobs, tradition declares (Tosafot Rosh ha-Shanah 33b, citing the Arukh), and for this reason, we Jews on Rosh Hashanah sound a total of one hundred notes on the shofar.
A beautiful, compassionate story. A shining example of historical generosity and forgiveness—we relive the pain and anguish of the mother of our enemy. But were there no Jewish mothers who were bereaved of their sons in the same war? Was no Jewish blood spilt in our long history, no Jewish tears shed by grieving mothers?
What the Rabbis intended, I believe, was a moral of great significance: The mother of Sisera lived in a dream world. She refused to face reality and contemplate its bitter side. And when you live in a dream world, you must expect nightmares. She had imagined that her exalted position as mother of a successful conqueror inured her to pain and tragedy—that was reserved only for the contemptible enemy, Israel. She was guilty of an immoral optimism, the kind of outlook that characterizes the unthinking and arrogant of all ages. Hers was a strutting and pompous dream which collapsed under the weight of its own illusions. And this indeed is what the shofar and Rosh Hashanah remind us of: there is a Yom ha-Din, a day of judgment and accounting. Al titya’esh min hapur‘ anut (Avot 1:7)—do not go through life, says one interpretation, blithely ignoring consequences which you dread. He who sits on top of the world has no assurance that his world will not collapse under him. Absolute security is a myth. Life is not as certain, as guaranteed, as the haughty, unreflective mentality of the mother of Sisera lead her to believe. Beware of such vain and dangerous illusions.
Do we not know in our own lives the kind of mentality that discovers its smugness and self-confidence punctured only when it is too late? We see it in international affairs, as when our government naively assumed that Communism could never gain a foothold on this continent, so we neglected the masses of Cuba, we supported tyranny, we ignored the oppressed population—and now we have Castro and his Russian allies ninety miles off our coast. Va-teyabbev. . .
The couple who neglect to seek advice for their serious problems, the man who ignores medical symptoms he inwardly fears, the mother who notices her children going off on the wrong path and says and does nothing—all of them lull themselves with false balm, assuring themselves that all is really well and nothing will be wrong. Va-teyabbev—how pitiful the tears that are so futilely shed when, later, there is divorce, and incurable illness, and a child gone astray. Broken homes, broken bodies, broken hearts—all in the inglorious tradition of Sisera’s mother. Rosh Hashanah reminds us of this, tells us that nothing in life is guaranteed, that by ignoring danger, you invite it, and that better face reality now than cry vainly later.
Hagar was the second of the three who cried. We read about her in today’s Torah portion. You recall that she was the servant of Sarah whom Abraham, at Sarah’s behest, banished from his home. She took her child, Ishmael, into the desert, and when the water in her jug gave out, she cast the child away, pathetically saying she did not want to see him die. And va-tissa et kolah va-tevk (Gen. 21:16), “she raised her voice and cried.” No attempt to save the child, no looking for an oasis—which factually was there, before her eyes—no real effort at changing her dangerous situation. She merely raises her voice and cries; it is the cry of desperation, a morbid, fatalistic pessimism. Hers is a “realism” that leads to resignation. Unlike Sisera’s mother, she sees the “facts” only too clearly. Hagar beholds the great desert of life—and submits to it.
Rosh Hashanah reminds us of this weeping too. Just as it discourages us from harboring the dangerous illusion of total security, so it warns us off from the equally dangerous fatalism of a Hagar, the hopelessness that paralyzes all will and initiative. By recalling these tears, we learn to avoid living so that we too will be forced to shed them.
And how important that advice is. Take the matter of the danger to the future of humanity from nuclear war. Most of us are under the impression that the majority of people are indifferent to its ghastly possibility, that they never consider such horrors as real.
I believe, however, that the reverse is true. Contemporary man’s attitude to the H-bomb is not that of the em Sisera but of Hagar. If they do not discuss it, it is because inwardly, psychologically, they have already given up and accepted it. They have surrendered and have the feeling that they are living in the end of time.
The results, morally speaking, are disastrous. If there is no future, then the present loses all value. If there is nothing to build for, there is nothing to live for. If death is certain and universal, then, like Esau, let us sell our birthright to fill our stomachs. If, as the cynics quoted by Isaiah said, mahar namut, “tomorrow we die” (Is. 22:13), then indeed, “let us eat and drink and be merry”—and forgo any serious purpose in life.
This, then, is the result of the Hagar mentality in its fatalism, its absolute hopelessness in the face of adversity. It is the type of mind which, seeing before it the midbar, is so overwhelmed by it that it stretches out and prepares to die with a whimper. And in that interval between despair and death, is it worth being temperate or sober or chaste or law-abiding or pure? The tears of Hagar and her whole frame of mind suggest a despair of which is born delinquency.
Both these approaches are dangerously wrong. A society, like an individual, which alternates between the moods of exhilaration and depression, em Sisera and Hagar, shows symptoms of moral mania and spiritual psychosis. Neither the one weeping nor the other is for us. Rather, it is the tears of a Jewish mother which inspire us this day.
The third woman who cried is Rachel. We read of her in tomorrow’s haftarah, in what is one of the most moving passages and most stirring images in all literature. Jeremiah describes Mother Rachel crying from her grave over her children who are banished from their homes into exile: “Thus saith the Lord, kol be-Ramah nishma, nehi, bekhi tamrurim, a voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping; Rachel mevakkah al banehah, it is Rachel weeping for her children; me‘anah le-hinnahem, she refuses to be comforted” (Jer. 31:14). Here is a woman whose tears have moved history. Unlike Sisera’s mother, they do not come from living an easy life and deluding herself into imagining that a day of reckoning will never come. Rachel lived a hard life and a brief one; she knew trouble and anguish. She sees her children going into exile and recognizes the bitterness of reality. But unlike Hagar, she refuses to bow to these realities. Me‘anah le-hinnahem, she refuses to submit, she refuses to adjust, she refuses to accept exile and destruction as the last word. Her cry, her tears, and her protest to God are the characteristic of the Jew throughout all time. The Jewish soul beholds reality in all its ugliness but sets out to transform it. The tears of Rachel are the tears of a gallant soul who will not yield to the world but makes the world, though it take centuries, yield to it. They are not the tears of vain sentiment and self-pity, but of powerful protest; they are a sign not of weakness, but of strength; not of resignation or frustration, but of determination. The tears of an em Sisera or a Hagar are the end of their story; for Rachel, it is a beginning. To Rachel’s cry there comes an answer: Koh amar Hashem, “thus saith the Lord,” min‘i kolekh mi-bekhi ve-einayikh mi-dim‘ah, “refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears, for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord, and thy children shall come back from the land of the enemy; and there is hope for thy future, saith the Lord, and ve-shavu banim li-gevulam, thy children shall return home” (Jer. 31:15–16). The Jewish attitude, symbolized by Rachel’s crying, is one which steers clear of the extremes of ignoring facts and of surrendering to them. Judaism teaches, in the language of the Kabbalah, that the it‘aruta di-le-Eila, the impulse from Above, or divine assistance, can only come in response to the it‘aruta di-le-tatta, or human initiative. For God helps those who help themselves—and God help those who don’t.
Has not this Rachel mentality distinguished the authentic Jew throughout the ages? Are not her heroic tears our saving grace even today? We did not rely on Britain or the United States or the League of Nations or the U.N. to take care of us, assuming with naive and idolatrous optimism that all would be well with us. We knew the harsh realities of creating an old people anew on a renewed land—with ancient enemies waiting to devour us. But Jews fought. They went into battle inspired by the tears of a Rachel who me’anah le-hinnahem, refusing to accept defeat, refusing to acknowledge surrender, refusing to submit to overwhelming odds. That is why ve-shavu banim li-gevulam; that is why there is an Israel today.
Fourteen or fifteen years ago, the great question was Palestine or the State of Israel. Today, two other central questions present themselves to us Jews, questions equally as significant as that of Israel.
The first is Russian Jewry. There is, at present, not too much we can do about it. We must recognize the brutal facts, the wily and cunning enemy we are dealing with, and the incalculably tragic results of a generation of Russian Jews denied any and all Jewish education. But we must vow never to give up hope. Me‘anah le-hinnahem. We must apply pressure. We must talk of them and inquire about them. We must never despair, but rather prepare for their eventual release and return to the House of Israel.
But the second is one we can do much about—and that is the most momentous issue in the Jewish life of this generation—the future of American Jewry. Here the attitude we take can determine whether we shall survive and thrive or, Heaven forbid, eventually vanish without a trace.
If we adopt the genuinely Jewish approach of a Rachel, then there is hope for us. We dare not consider the complacent ideas of those who foolishly tell us that all is well and there is no cause for worry—those who, imbued with the same opiate that dulled the mind of Sisera’s mother, are blind to the densely negative features of American-Jewish life: intermarriage, vast ignorance of the most elementary aspects of Judaism, a desire to mimic the non-Jews, and a growing vacuum in the lives of our children.
Yet, at the same time, we dare not take a Hagar-like attitude and assume that things are so far gone that nothing will avail. The pessimists are blind to the resurgence and growing independence of Orthodoxy; the spreading Jewish Day School movement; the growing and developing Yeshiva University; the flourishing Hebrew book industry. Either attitude—ignoring the problems and ignoring the promises, thoughtless optimism and hopeless pessimism— paralyzes all initiative and must result in national mourning.
Ours must be the tears of Rachel. Knowing reality, let us proceed to transform it to a better reality. Let everyone here decide to come to shul at least once a week instead of making a perfunctory three-day-a-year visit. Let every parent send his or her children to a yeshivah or day school or at least Hebrew school. Let every thinking adult leave this synagogue today determined to learn more about Judaism, about the Jewish people—about yourselves. Tears of determination, of me‘anah le-hinnahem—the tears of Rachel—these shall save us.
Ha-zore‘im be-dim‘ah be-rinnah yiktzoru (Ps. 126:5). Those to whom tears are not the distillation of vain illusions or morbid resignation, but the dewdrops of creative moral heroism, they shall sow the seeds of hope with these tears—and reap a harvest of joy, of happiness, of nahas and unending blessing.