Shmuly Yanklowitz

The Unique Tears of God and Man

We all express our emotions differently; some tear up at the slightest emotional impulse while others hold back tears amidst the most trying situations, and this of course should be honored. Though emotions and tears are deeply personal they are also reflections of our spirituality and connection to G-d. Let us further explore the theological significance of our tears.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells the famous story of the Hassidic Rebbe during the Holocaust and the danger of Divine tears:

In the Warsaw ghetto there lived and died a great and saintly Hassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymous Shapiro. Throughout the years 1941-1943 he taught his disciples, and wrote down the addressed he delivered in a book. Knowing he would not survive, he buried the book under the ground. It was discovered after the war. As the weeks went by, Rabbi Shapiro saw his community, his friends, his family, his children, one by one, taken to the extermination camps. And still he taught, though with greater and greater pain, until one day, he told his disciples that God Himself was weeping, and if a single tear were to escape from heaven to earth, it would destroy the world, (A Letter in the Scroll, 186).

The ideas from this story are based upon a famous Talmudic teaching:

What are the zeva’os? R’ Ketina said, “An earthquake.” R’ Ketina was walking along the road. When he came to the door of the house of a bone necromancer, [the earth] shuddered and quaked. He said, “Does the necromancer know how such an earthquake comes to be?” He shouted out to him, “Ketina, Ketina, why should I not know? When Hakadosh Baruch Hu remembers His children, who endure the misery among the nations of the world, He sheds two tears into the Great Sea, and its sound is heard from one end of the world to the other, and this is [what we perceive as] an earthquake!” (Berachot 59a).

But it is not only G-d’s tears that affect us. The Kedushat Levi teaches that the emotions we express on earth deeply affect the heavens (first vort on Eichah). Our tears, our pain, our oppression, and our anxiety reach the heavens. Further the Talmud teaches:

The “meek (tznuot)” amongst them weep, and their tears reach the heavenly throne because the gates to accept “those who are oppressed” and the gates to accept “tears” are never closed (Bava Metziah 59b).

G-d, so to speak, hears and feels our pain. That is a profoundly powerful notion that we should consider in our times of agony.

Modern science has wondrously shown that no two tears are physically alike. “All tears contain organic substances including oils, antibodies, and enzymes and are suspended in salt water. Different types of tears have distinct molecules.” Every person throughout the world cries unique tears with their own particular dignity. Tears are physical representations of our spiritual and existential emotions so the science suggesting their uniqueness is very powerful. Furthermore, an enlightening Midrash teaches that there are six kinds of tears – 3 of which are beneficial and 3 of which are harmful (Shabbat 151b-152a, Midrash Eikhah Rabbah 2:19).

Tears are miraculous. They are an external Divine reminder of the intensity of our inner worlds and of the hidden worlds. These simple drops of water reveal something complex and profound about the human spiritual condition. Regardless of how we each express our emotions, readily or with reticence, we should take time to consider the power and uniqueness of our being and the ways through which we express ourselves.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of five books on Jewish ethics.  Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.