In her novel, Abide With Me, American author Elizabeth Strout tells the story of Tyler Caskey, a minister who struggles to lead a rural church in Maine while mourning the death of his wife and the disintegration of his family. Tyler’s congregants’ take out their achingly imperfect lives on him by treating him with small minded vindictiveness, as he retreats behind a public persona that is disconnected from his real emotional pain. One Sunday, Tyler prepares a sermon that condemns his flock for their meanness, yet as he is about to deliver it he breaks down and begins crying uncontrollably. Witnessing his courage to be vulnerable by weeping in front of them, his parishioners discover – or rediscover – their sense of loving compassion for him, for each other, and for themselves. More than his words, his tears are what break him and his community open, so that they experience a renewed, more hopeful sense of their common humanity.
Unlike Strout’s protagonist, I am blessed to be the rabbi of a fine synagogue community which has supported me and my family through nearly two decades of our lives. I am also lucky to have had to share very few tears of personal sorrow with them. Yet as I get older and begin to dance more on the edges of uncertainty and mortality, their personal stories about that same dance begin to touch me even more deeply than they have in the past. Growing together in this way with them, I have begun weeping more openly with the members of my community during their times of joy and pain.
The power of weeping with others is illustrated by three beautiful vignettes about the third century sage, Rabbi Yohanan bar Nappaha, that the Babylonian Talmud tells in Tractate Brakhot 5b. They are found at the end of a long passage about the nature of suffering and God’s role in it, in which Rabbi Yohanan, a man who has lost ten children, voices some strong opinions. After all of the Talmud‘s abstract speculation about why bad things happen to good people, Yohanan visits and heals an ill colleague and in turn is visited by a colleague who heals him when he becomes ill. In the last story, Yohanan and another sick friend weep with each other over the fact that we will all wither and die. Only then does Yohanan heal his colleague. The Talmud elsewhere expresses this emotional immediacy and healing effect of weeping, whether with tears of joy or of anguish, with fine poetic imagery. It teaches that even if the heavenly gates that receive our prayers are shut tight, the gates that receive our tears are never shut. Weeping is a visceral, almost instinctive response to the fullest range of human feelings, dreams, fears and desires. It so genuinely emerges from a full or broken heart without the benefit of speech, that how could God not open the heavenly gates and respond to it? Weeping alone allows God to help us open gates of renewed wisdom within ourselves that change us. Weeping with others opens gates between us that, as it were, move God.
Every year as we approach Tisha B’Av, a day devoted to weeping, I ask myself why I fast and practice all of the mourning rituals connected to this lowest point on the Jewish calendar. I am not enamored of the rationale that we mourn the Temple’s destruction and that we long for its rebuilding. Judaism thankfully has long since developed well beyond its biblical antecedents, the state of Israel has enough to worry about without wading into the waters of “Bet-Hamikdash Mania,” and the politics of third Temple messianism have become increasingly ugly and unholy. Further, I always feel this bizarre discordance between revisiting the ruined Jerusalem of Jeremiah’s ancient lamentations and visiting the robust, modern Jerusalem that I love and support. What in our time is compelling about Tisha B’Av?
Tisha B’Av still works for me precisely because it gives me and the Jewish people the opportunity to weep together. Almost from the beginning of Megillat Eichah (the Book of Lamentations), Jeremiah imagines Jerusalem weeping openly: “For these things do I weep//my eyes, my eyes drip water//far from me is any comforter//who might revive my spirit.” As we, the readers and chanters of the book, listen in on Jerusalem’s woeful, tearful cry of abandonment, we can imagine ourselves weeping with her, and by extension, with each other. Paradoxically, in our weeping and mourning with her, we become Her comforters. This chanted drama of collective tears always risks paralyzing the Jewish people: if we’re always weeping over our past, how do we get out of our own way and move toward our future? Still, at its best, weeping together as a community helps us to embrace the vulnerability, tenderness, and solidarity in suffering that deepen our love for one another. It is this ability, built deep into Jewish tradition, that has always given us the strength to hold each through eras of persecution and to anticipate the birth of the messiah, whose birth on Tisha B’Av will make the world weep with joy.