Tears on the Holy Days

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September 1, 2002
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By Mordechai Gafni

Every generation unpacks ritual in the light of its own unique prism of revelation. To engage in this reinterpretation – in chiddush haTorah, the renewal of Torah – is an act of passionate love. Not to renew the Torah is not to love her.

Together with friends and students, I have for some years been engaged in developing a new school of Jewish thought that we call personal myth covenant. It is both a reformulation and dramatic extension of the core chassidic idea of devekut, attachment.

One of its tenets is careful attention to the internal emotional process of the human being – a sacred tool for uncovering and living our unique personal myth. In light of this principle, we reverently and lovingly reengage Jewish text, ritual, and theology from the inside, seeking to unpack her hidden wisdom.

Allow me to share one stunning example of this process – Rosh Hashana. The classical understanding, understood by rabbinic sources, interprets the holiday as the time of judgment. (Biblical text makes no overt mention of the theme – see for example Derashat Haramban al Rosh Hashana, who notes the rabbinic innovation.) Reward and punishment are the dominant themes. This is the old Rosh Hashana paradigm. In that model lefnei HaShem meant ‘before God.’ God is there, I am here, thus I stand before the throne in judgment. In the new model, lefnei, which derives from the root that means before, inside, and face, has another meaning. Lefnei HaShem is, therefore, not only ‘before God,’ but also to be on the inside of God’s face.

The central text of Rosh Hashana is the machzor. Within the machzor, the most ‘canonical’ section is the selected prophetic and biblical readings. All of these readings share a common theme – tears. “My tears,” writes Nachman of Bratzlav, “are my divinity; they come from the inside of God’s face.”

We encounter the crying of Hagar and the crying of her son Ishmael in the first biblical text. In its companion prophetic reading, we witness and resonate with the crying of the people and, most dramatically, the tears of Rachel. In the second prophetic reading, the crying of Hannah, barren wife of Elkana, figures prominently in the narrative. In the second biblical reading – the binding of Isaac, the ultimate trauma between father and son – tears are notable for their very absence. The masters who compiled the machzor, deeply conscious of this absence, filled it with the midrashic verse “Tears of angels fell into Isaac’s eyes as he lay on the altar.”

We blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana with primarily two different notes: three wailing sounds and nine short staccato sounds. The Talmud based its reading of the shofar’s essence as well as its interpretation of the specific nature of these different sounds on the crying of a woman called Sisera’s mother. (She had no name in the biblical text.) She was the archetypal “wife of.” When “of” dies she became “the widow of.” She is “mother of.” She cries when she realizes that Sisera is never coming home. Not only has she lost her child, but the very mask of her identity has been ripped from her. Unsure whether she cried slow and wailing tears or punctuated staccato tears, we blow both sounds with the shofar. When we stand before God bare of our masks of identity, we weep from the deepest place.

Tears are the stunning, evocative theme hidden in the day. Every character is part of the symphony. The crying of Hannah is crying when words won’t do. Hannah’s tears, in Tractate Brachot, become the model for Jewish prayer. Tears of prayer.

Rachel’s tears, according to the tradition, provoke the Divine to redeem the people. Rachel cries for her children; she is the archetype of radical empathy. She gives up her intended groom in compassion with Leah’s tears. In kabbalistic texts, she is the incarnation of Shechina in exile. Rachel ensures that although the people may cry in quiet desperation, it is never lonely desperation; the Shechina is always at our side. Her tears are redemptive. In the very same reading, the people cry as they return to the land. Tears of Pain or, alternately, Tears of Ecstasy.

Hagar “lifted her voice and wept and God heard the cries of the child.” Hagar’s tears, unique in biblical text, are initially ignored. She picks up her son and places him the distance of an arrow shot away and raises her voice to wail as she awaits his death and hers. These are tears that cry the terror of hopelessness – when change, healing, and transformation seem an impossible mockery. The text does not fully accept those tears. Crying of Resignation. God, who hears the crying of the child, cries Tears of Hope and Future.

The rabbinic ensemble intentionally chose tears as the model for Rosh Hashana’s central ritual. Tears are woven with gentle yet potent kavanah, intention, into the very fabric of the day. Kabbalist Isaac Luria suggests that one who does not cry on Rosh Hashana finds no blessing in the following year.

Clearly this holy day is an invitation to reengage our inner depths in the most profound ways. No longer is Rosh Hashana the judgment day; it is the day when we revision and reclaim our stories. Our instrument is the symphony of tears. The Zohar understood that Rachel, Hagar, Sisera’s mother, Hannah, the people, the angels, and Isaac are all us. We find ourselves in their stories. This is Personal Myth. We are invited to walk the path of tears. Not one path but many paths – each soaked with a different form of crying. Each one revealing to us something precious about the contour and texture of our unique souls.

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Rabbi Mordechai (Marc) Gafni is Head of Bayit Chadash (a spiritual retreat center in Israel), and Creator & Host of a leading Israeli TV show on ethics and spirituality. He is the author of several scholarly books as well as the book and PBS special Soul Prints.

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