“He who does not shed tears on Rosh Hashanah bears witness to the deadness of his soul,” writes Isaac Luria, the 16th century mystic of Safed.
And yet crying is not easy. When we finally do cry, we cry for all the times we never cried before. There is much to cry about: tears of joy, sobs of anguish. So much has happened in a year.
People who were so vibrantly alive have somehow died, babies who were not, have been born. Men and women who were hidden have risen to greatness and others who seemed pure have stumbled into the depths of depravity.
However, it is in the realm of personal relationships that the greatest miracles and tragedies unfold in the space of a year. Souls that have never touched happen across each other on a busy street and somehow all the walls tumble down. A little bit of redemption is felt in the world as we accompany the bride and groom to their wedding canopy. Yet at the same time, couples who perhaps should be together, drift apart, and the angels cry with them; and with us.
The Zohar—probably the most important work of Jewish mysticism—observes that the Hebrew the word for crying — bechi is derived from the same root as mevucha, which means confusion.
Crying on Rosh Hashanah goes even deeper. It may begin with confusion but its goal is to bring us to some clarity… about ourselves, about our worlds. According to the Talmud, the shofar is, in essence, an instrument of crying. Teruah, the Hebrew word for the shofar sound is understood to mean a cry, a sob, a call. In the original tradition, the shofar was blown not only by a designated individual on behalf of the entire congregation, but by every person in the synagogue. The reason: Shofar is about teaching every individual to reach his/her own personal crying. My cry is my song. It is unique, unlike any other; it expresses my ultimate I-ness. No one can cry for me.
The Talmudic Rabbis would have understood the poet Dante, who writes in The Inferno, that the punishment of the dammed is the inability to cry. On the eve of Yom Kippur, according to the Talmud, the High Priest must cry. If he is not able to cry he is considered unfit to enter the Holy of Holies in the temple. The Holy of Holies, in the image of Jewish mystics, is considered to be the “inside of the inside.” To be redeemed is to be able to go to the depths of the interior, past the superficiality and shallowness of living on the outside. Crying emerges from our depths; if we are to ashamed to cry we can’t get inside… of ourselves or of anyone else.
However, not all crying is real. There is authentic crying and inauthentic crying. The idea that “real men don’t cry” in Judaism, is reformulated as “real men don’t cry — inauthentically.” Real men and women, cry, for real.
The Talmud teaches (Baba Metzia 59B): “Even when all the gates are closed, the gates of tears remain forever open.” Simcha Bunim of Pschischa, nineteenth century mystical master, asks: If the heavens are always open to tears, than why in the Talmudic image is there a special “gate of tears?” Surely a gate is meant to allow entry and to deny entry. His answer: only crying that is authentic and real is accepted on High. Rosh Hashanah is about crying for real.
But what are authentic tears? Rosh Hashanah, in the deepest understanding, is about re- embracing my essential “I.” Original sin in Judaism as explained in “Lights of Holiness” by Rav Kook, means to abandon my essential “I” and adopt the mask of the stranger. “Strangers to ourselves,” wrote George Steiner, “errants at the gates of our own psyche.”
The Hebrew word for idolatry, the ultimate biblicalism is Avodah Zara. This term may be literally translated as the Hebrew word for idolatry, the ultimate biblical phrase of “worshipping the stranger…;” the stranger in ourselves. Listen to the words of the original text of Lights of Holiness (3:140): (lyrically translated from the original Hebrew by Rachel Ebner.) “The first man sinned: he became alienated from his own personhood for he turned to the opinion of the snake and lost himself he did not know to give a clear answer to God’s question “where are you?” for he did not own his own soul. because his I-ness had perished in the sin of bowing down to a foreign God.” If in Christianity, original sin is embedded in the inadequacy of the human personality—which can only be redeemed by Jesus—in Judaism, original sin is to embrace the God within me—which is my unique and ireplicable, “I-ness.”
One of the major refrains in the prayer service on Rosh Hashanah is our prayer to God to inscribe us in the Book of Life. The Rebbe of Slonim, a wise scholar living today in Jerusalem, gives this liturgical phrase a powerful and poignant new reading. In his understanding, it is not the human being who turns in prayer to God, but God who turns in prayer to the human being. God “prays” to us: “Write yourself in the Book of life.” All year you haven’t been yourself. You have been living someone else’s story. I need you to be you. Let go of the old ghosts. Move beyond the false inner voices that you are trying so hard to please. It is time to find your own voice. To thine own self be true.
Shofar, in the mystical tradition, is on a higher level than the “word.” Words can lie, say the masters. Shofar is on the level of “voice:” clear and honest. It never lies about the true you. Shema Koleinu! —”Hear our voices!” we implore in the High Holy Day prayers; meaning, even if we are having trouble with the words—please God, help us find the voice that is ours, and the words will come. “Help us write ourselves in the book of our lives.” Failure to embrace our own story is starkly described by T.S. Eliot. “We are the hollow men, We are the stuffed men….. Shape without form, Shade without Color Paralyzed force, gesture without motion”
The way of return to God is not, as the classical image suggests, to repent for last year’s sins, says the Rebbe of Slonim. There is little to be gained by mucking around in last year’s mess. Rather, for those moments when you are in Synagogue go inside…deep…and commit to being yourself, to being the best that you can be. Commit to writing this year the song that only you can bring down into the world.
In Hebrew, the window into Jewish consciousness, sin means “to miss the mark.” To miss the mark that is you. The Jewish system of mitzvah or performing good deeds is not a laundry list. It is a system of “Mitzvahrobics” for the soul. It is a sophisticated tuning fork for the soul that helps the individual (and community) find the rhythm and melody of his music.
Shofar is the crying instrument, the “voice” for our words. Crying is inauthentic if it leaves me confused and depressed. Authentic crying moves beyond the confusion and depression. Tears bring a sense of cleansing, of purification, redirecting me towards the path to my highest self.
‘I wish you and me and the entire the Jewish people the highest Rosh Hashanah in the world.
Rabbi Mordechai Gafni, the Director of Milah Institute in Jerusalem, wrote this article for the on-line magazine Jewish Family & Life!—www.JewishFamily.com