I distinctly remember being in shul on Yom Kippur when I was a youngster, and when the chazzan repeated the line in the Shema Koleinu prayer—“Do not cast us away in our old age”—several women sitting in the front row of the women’s section burst into tears. In fact, I would always hear very loud and audible cries on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur during various parts of the services while growing up.
For a child, it was a little scary the first time I encountered this, but when I got older, I realized these tears were an honest and necessary emotion of the High Holiday services. Today it seems to be different. Ours is an age in which we have forgotten how to cry. Tears are one of the most powerful, wordless ways we communicate our feelings to others, yet we generally keep our emotions firmly in check when we are in shul during the Yamim Noraim.
Rabbi Norman Lamm offered this observation many years ago in a sermon he gave on Rosh Hashanah called “Three Who Cried.” He specifically speaks of three types of tears: the tears that are shed when our myths of absolute security and certainty are shattered; the tears of those who resign themselves to hopelessness; and the tears of those who cry over reality, not from frustration or resignation, but from a determination to change and renew that reality. According to Rabbi Lamm, Jewish crying most closely fits the last of these categories: The act of crying is the beginning of transformation—the tears are those of resolute purpose. And no time is more appropriate for this type of crying than on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Since I am a ba’al tefila during the High Holidays, I put great emphasis on understanding the words of the prayers that we are saying. And sometimes the words strike an emotional feeling—and I cannot help but cry. Especially during the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer.
After a congregant in our community, Louis Felder, was tragically murdered by gunshot, I could not help but cry after saying, “Mi lo b’kitzo.” When Hurricane Katrina claimed the lives of hundreds of residents in New Orleans, I cried when I read the words, “Mi ba’mayim.” And after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon incinerated more than 2,000 people, I cried when I read the words, “Mi ba’aish.” Ironically, all three of these events happened within a week or two of the ensuing Rosh Hashanah holiday.
Thinking back, that probably contributed to the raw emotions that I was feeling at the time. But I was crying not only out of genuine sadness and despair, but because I knew that it was the job of those of us who remained to carry on with our lives and make them purposeful, despite the setbacks we had just experienced. That, indeed, is an awesome responsibility—and creates the need to shed tears as well.
But what if we have, in fact, forgotten how to cry? Or perhaps we were taught by parents or others that we should not cry. Though we may feel like crying, it’s often that we hold back tears. Rabbi Lamm reflects on this as well, in relation to Rosh Hashanah:
“Once upon a time the maczor was stained with tears; today it is so white and clean—and cold. Not, unfortunately, that there is nothing to cry about… It is rather that we have embarrassed ourselves into silence… And so the unwept tears and unexpressed emotions and the unarticulated cries well up within us and seek release. What insight the Kotzker Rebbe had when he said that when a man needs to cry, and wants to cry, but cannot cry—that is the most heart-rending cry of all.”
For us to feel the impact of the High Holiday season, we have to allow ourselves the full range of emotions—and that should involve being allowed to cry, if that in fact is how we are feeling.
As Erica Brown wisely once said, “We don’t have to teach ourselves to cry. We just have to give ourselves permission.”
By Michael Feldstein