When I first became a rabbi I was taken aback by people who cried during services. I didn’t know what to do, or how to react.
I asked my teacher, Rabbi Marcia Prager, and she said to buy a few boxes of tissues and put them around the room. The answer didn’t satisfy, so she continued: “You are a conduit for the prayers and the feelings that come when we talk to God. And that sometimes makes us cry. Not bitter tears. Not sad tears, or tears of joy. Tears of a heart opening to God.”
Tears of a heart opening to God. Those are the tears that I desire for myself. That sudden expansion of your chest that you can’t exactly explain. The feeling that is neither sadness nor joy but instead an acute awareness of the awe-inspiring universe, of being alive, of being human.
People are forever telling us to not cry. Or if we do, to get over with it quickly. They don’t want to deal with the raw emotion that comes with tears, the huge gulping sobs, the red face. If we cry, they want it to be quiet, discreet. Raw emotion is just too raw.
The anti-tear message begins when we are young, so young. We comfort a baby the moment before she begins to cry, rock a weeping child to sleep, wipe away the tears and promise, promise, to make everything better. But the truth is, some things can’t be fixed.
No one prepares us for the transformative power of tears, how they can literally wash away pain and fear, just by letting them fall. And yet, Judaism understands; at the end of the Neilah service tomorrow night, we pray, “May it be your will that you hear the voice of tears.”
Psalm 56 tells us that God cherishes our tears so much they are lovingly saved, “You keep count of my wanderings; put my tears into your flask, record them in your Book.”
We’re supposed to weep, both on Rosh Hashanah and especially on Yom Kippur. There is an old saying, “A Haggadah without wine stains is like a High Holiday prayer book without tear stains.”
Those tears are an honest and necessary emotion of the High Holidays. Today, high holiday services are different than when it was common for people to weep publicly and profusely. Although tears are one of the most powerful, wordless ways we communicate our feelings to God, we keep our emotions firmly in check when we are in shul during the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe.
It’s a shame.
Some of these tears are from sorrow, many from regret, some from physical pain and desire, some from unfathomable loss. They are the sound of a heart cracking open, letting the light in.
In her book The Dark Wood of the Golden Birds, Margaret Wise Brown wrote about a mythical forest from which the song of unseen birds emerged, transfixing and transforming all who heard.
Maria Popova wrote of it that, “the book has fallen out of print in a culture that has no room and no language for grief, and no tolerance for the darkest dimensions of life, which crack open our vastest capacity for light.”
Brown, who also wrote Good Night Moon, understood the power of grief, of tears, and of song. She wrote of the ethereal music that emerged from the dark forest:
“And in their song the man heard all that was beautiful to hear, the ringing of bells and the soughing of the wind; he heard the echo that is hidden in a sea shell, the deep sea music; he heard laughter and singing and the songs his mother sang to him long ago.”
Our tears are the sound of the golden birds residing in our hearts, the sound of our sighs during this long day of repentance, the sound of our hopes and our regrets, our dreams and our deepest desires.
Rabbi Elazar, a great sage of our past, said that the gates of prayer were locked after the Temple was destroyed. But, he taught, the gates of tears are never locked.
May you each be blessed to shed heart-opening tears, tears that let the light in, on this Day of Atonement, whether you weep openly or not.
This was my Kol Nidre sermon to my congregation, Kol HaNeshama.