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"Vale of Tears", by Moshe Rosenberg  
 
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Sep 21, 2006 -- Every year, during the Hineni prayer that introduces the Musaf service on the High Holy Days, the cantor of my childhood (long since deceased) used to cry. On cue. Right where the words called for tears. He would miraculously recover himself in time to complete the operatic piece.

My father, of blessed memory, as he chanted the near sacrifice of Isaac before the congregation on Rosh HaShanah, also used to break down in tears, but only in some years. It could take him a long time to regain his composure. We never asked him what thoughts the haunting melody and story of the Akedah evoked, but we surmised that it had to do with being the sole survivor of an extended family of dozens, all of whom perished in Poland. Thus I learned early to distinguish among varieties of tears.

I do not condemn the cantor. His tears, while not sincere, at least aspired to sincerity, and became a tradition of sorts. It was many years later that I read in a book on the laws and customs of Rosh HaShanah that it is proper to bring oneself to tears during the prayers of the High Holy Day season. Perhaps you can't legislate emotion, but you can try to set a mood.

In a climactic poem recited during the concluding Neilah of Yom Kippur, we beg the Almighty to collect our tears in His flask, hinting that not even one goes to waste. I wondered: How does a tear qualify for admission to the flask of God? Is sincerity the criterion? Should I be looking, as I. L. Peretz was in his famous story "The Three Gifts" for the tear of a perfect penitent?

As more High Holy Day seasons receded behind me, I refined my classification of tears, and discovered others who had preceded me in this. I discovered that there are tears that sap strength and those that build it. Writing in the Warsaw Ghetto, from which the last dregs of hope were seeping, Rabbi Kalonimus Kalmish Shapiro, the Piacecszna rebbe observed, "Tears that one sheds crying alone over one's troubles can break and lower the spirit, leading to spiritual paralysis. But tears that one sheds together with God serve to strengthen a person "When one perseveres, and makes contact with Torah and Divine service, one enters the inner chambers, where God Himself weeps and wails together with him." I hadn't known that the tears we deposit in God's flask mingle with His own, shed over the pain of his creatures.

Some tears undermine the very purpose for which they are shed. The first example I remember was from the 80's sitcom "Cheers."? In one episode, Norm, the perpetual bar-potato, is given the task of firing someone at work. Unable to break the bad news, he bursts into tears, and the downsized worker ends up comforting him. Seeing this turn of events, he makes the accidental occurrence his new formula, and becomes adept at being a hatchet man, while using his tears to avoid the backlash of his victims.

Art mimics life, and we have been treated in recent days to real-life tears of this variety. With his country paying the price for never standing up to Hezbollah terrorists, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora evoked pathos by resorting to tears while addressing the foreign ministers of the Arab League. But it seems, according to Annia Ciezadlo of The New Republic, that this was not his first tearful performance. When a television show took him for a Christmas visit to the home of a family devastated by his economic program, his response was to cry on TV. His people have tired of his tears, and turned to the dryer-eyed, more forthcoming Hezbollah. God save us from tears that release the emotional tension that might otherwise have been channeled toward action.

For whom shall we cry this Rosh HaShanah? For those left widowed and orphaned by the recent Lebanon war? For those left in peril by the war's ambiguous conclusion? More importantly, what kind of tears will we shed? Will they be planned or spontaneous? Will they be the tears of helplessness or of resolve, purpose or paralysis? Will we cry by ourselves and for ourselves, or with God and for his creatures? Will the vale of tears open our eyes to the needs of others, or will the veil of tears cloud our sight from taking needed action?

Shortly after the passing of the Grand Rebbe Yitzhak of Vorki, the Kotzker rebbe told of seeing him in a dream: "He wasn't in the realm of the sages to which he had been assigned. I found him outside, leaning on his cane, and gazing transfixed into a river. When I asked him why he didn't enter to receive his reward, he gestured to the water, 'these are the tears of the Jewish people, shed through the long years of exile. How can I leave them?'"
One who cannot ignore the tears of other Jews deserves his own tears to be treasured by God.


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