The Sacredness of Tears


When I was 9 years old, my father had to go to the hospital to repair a hernia. These days a hernia repair is an outpatient procedure followed by a few days of bedrest.  In my father’s day a hernia repair was treated quite differently.  My father was in the hospital for an entire week, was out of work for a month, and had to be careful moving about for an entire year! That was the year he could not go ice skating with me at the local park, he couldn’t lift any of his three children up, he couldn’t throw a football with me in the back yard. But the thing I remember most, that startled me the most, was the report I heard from my Aunt Bea, his sister, after she visited him in the hospital. I overheard her tell my mother that when she entered his hospital room, she found my father crying. My father crying? My father doesn’t cry, I thought to myself. I cry, but I’m a kid. My father is a big strong man, a veteran of World War ll. My father took part in the US army campaigns in Africa, in Sicily, in Italy, in Southern France and in Central Europe. How can my father be crying?  


Looking back now I find it interesting that even by age 9, I had been socialized to think that a man crying was a sign of weakness and a reason for shame. As we know, that was a strong and firm belief held by most Americans to the extent that when Senator Edmund Muskie shed some tears in public it derailed his 1972 presidential bid.  

Yet the Bible records many stories in which men cry. In the climax to the story of Joseph which we read this week, Joseph and his brothers fall into each other’s arms and cry when finally reconciled in Egypt. Next week we will read that Jacob “cried mightily” when he was re-united with Joseph in Egypt. These are all tears of joy. Earlier in the Bible Jacob and Esau cry when they met after a 20-year estrangement. These are tears of relief. David and Jonathan cry when they part. These are tears of sadness, as they know not when, and if, they will see one another again.  David cries when his son Absalom dies. These are tears of grief. The Psalms are replete with accounts of men crying at times of turmoil, desolation, misery or fear.  “Weary am I with groaning and weeping,” writes the author of Psalm 6, “Nightly my pillow is soaked with tears.” These are the tears of someone in pain. Hezekiah, the King of Southern Israel, weeps bitterly when he is told by the prophet Isaiah that he is about to die. His are tears of despair. Mordechai cries when he hears the decree of King Ahasuerus. These are tears of supplication. There are many other instances of grown men crying in the Bible. Clearly our Holy Scriptures do not view crying as a sign of weakness or something to be ashamed of.  


Our rabbis teach that Moses, our greatest teacher, our most courageous leader, a man of towering strength, wrote the final lines of the Torah not in ink, but with his own tears.  These final verses were the verses that recorded Moses’ own death. Rashi teaches us that G-d would dictate the Torah to Moses and he would repeat each word before writing it down in ink. But when it came to recording his own death, G-d dictated and Moses wrote with his own tears, unable to repeat the words. 


Why did Moses cry? Were these tears of anguish over his being denied by G-d entrance into the Promised Land? Were they tears of anxiety over what would happen to his people once he was gone? Were they tears of impotence over having to leave this world before his task was complete? Tears of happiness that his mission on earth was now complete? The rabbis don’t say.  


The Kotzker Rebbe teaches that our tears are desirable. Why? He explains that a child cries because the child believes that their mother or father will hear their cry. When we adults cry it is a sign that we believe that someone will hear us.  That “someone” is G-d, who loves us like a parent. The Kotzker Rebbe teaches that when someone turns to G-d with eyes full of tears, their prayers fly straight to Heaven and are heard by the Holy Blessed One. The Gates of Tears, says the Kotzker, are never closed.  


We should never be ashamed to cry. Tears are not a sign of weakness but wordless messengers that communicate a wide range of human emotions, whether anger, grief, contrition, or love.  We should not try to cover up what we are feeling, or judge others who are expressing their emotions. Our tradition teaches that tears are simply part of being human. Our tradition teaches that there is a sacredness, purity and holiness to our tears.   Shabbat Shalom