Shed a tear…or two

To cry or to cry twice? That is the question

By: Rabbi Dovid Samuels

It’s quiet in shul. Eerily quiet. We have just recited Psalm 47 seven times. Each time it got louder and more meaningful, more emotional. “Our G-d has ascended with a blast – Hashem, with the sound of the shofar.” Then the ba’al toke’a raises his voice. The man with the responsibility to blow the shofar for the whole congregation calls out: “From the constraints I called to G-d, He answered me with G-dly relief.” The first letters of the next verses spoken by the man standing next to the shofar spell out “rip up the accuser”. He calls out: “You have heard my voice; do not shut Your ear to my request for relief, to my cry.”

After making the brochas, with focus and fervour, everyone waits for the response to the call of “Tekia”. Then, it comes. A sharp and piercing sound that feels like it is bursting out of your very soul and screaming its way up to the highest heaven. Everyone has their own thoughts and emotions flooding through their minds and their hearts at that moment, and the experience becomes more powerful with each and every shofar blast. There are many such moments on Rosh Hashanah, when the most appropriate human response would be to simply cry. Yet crying is one of the only human responses that represent two complete opposites: we cry when we are happy, and yet we cry when we are sad. So, on Rosh Hashanah, what is motivating our tears?

The subject of crying on Rosh Hashanah during the shofar blowing is seemingly a complicated one. The Vilna Gaon[1] is of the opinion that the sound of the shofar should evoke feelings of joy, whereas the Arizal[2] believed that one should, in fact, cry when hearing the blasts as a result of the feelings of repentance he is experiencing at that moment. As paradoxical as crying itself is, it is quite possible that these two opinions are actually both fulfillable. But how?

Jews love to tell stories of our illustrious ancestors. Cynically, people think that the greater we make our predecessors out to be, the greater we automatically become merely by being descendants of such great people. This is a way to achieve “greatness” without any self-work whatsoever. But the true reason why we tell stories of our great predecessors is because through telling these stories, we motivate ourselves to become greater. Through doing this, we not only make our predecessors great by relating their greatness to others, but we actually make them greater because they now become the predecessors of great people: those descendants who bettered themselves because of their holy ancestors, for a great teacher becomes greater when his students become greater themselves.

On Rosh Hashanah, we relate the greatness of our King. We speak of His power, His kindness. The more we sing, the greater the King becomes. No? What really makes a king greater? If He is a king over great people; that is the sign of a great king. On Rosh Hashanah, as we tell the story of our King, and we aim to truly teach the world, the universe, that Hashem is really the King of all Kings, then it is incumbent upon us to become the greatest people we can become. Only then will we see just how great our King really is: through His people. A king who rules over a kingdom of criminals is no king. A king who rules over a nation of tzaddikim…that’s a king!

“Our G-d has ascended with a blast.” As the sound of the shofar breaks the silence, that is when we are coronating the King of the Universe. If we allow our thoughts to turn to the meaning of this unbelievable mitzvah, we would surely feel scared, uneasy, perhaps even ashamed at how we have limited the expression of Hashem’s greatness through our rebellious behaviour. Have we promoted the awareness of our King’s greatness, or have we limited it? “Awake, you sleepers, from your slumber,” the Rambam cautions us. Improve! Advance! Grow! This is the mission we have as integral members in the Kingdom of G-d. The Arizal told us that when we hear the shofar, our eyes should flood with tears. Are we to blame for others not noticing the greatness of Hashem? Have we sacrificed our King’s honour for our own pleasure? Who can answer truthfully in the negative? The appropriate response is certainly to cry!

But at that very moment, when we hear the blasts blaring out, proclaiming Hashem the King of the entire creation, and our hearts are full of regret at how we have stifled the true expressions of G-dliness in this world, we resolve to do better. We see the error of our ways, and we are reawaken to the true purpose of our lives: be an appropriate ambassador to the Alm-ghty. The Vilna Gaon told us to feel joy. With each blow of the shofar, our hearts become straightened out, and those with a straight heart experience the ultimate joy: Ule’yishrei lev simcha[3] – To those with straight hearts, Joy! We realise that we have the ability to use the greatness of our King to better ourselves, and thereby further advance the knowledge of the greatness of our King to the entire world. The appropriate response is certainly to rejoice!

These two emotions are most appropriate on this holy day. And it is at the beginning of the year, on Rosh Hashanah, which has contained within it everything that will happen during the course of the year, that we respond in such a paradoxical way. Because whatever happens to a Jew, there are two responses:

  • Have I done everything I could have done?
  • I now have an opportunity to take this lesson and use it to become greater!

Two tears can serve as agents for these two emotions. Pain and perseverance; remorse and resolve. The word for the shofar blast is called a Teruah. Rosh Hashanah itself is called a day of Teruah. Teruah is made up of the letters reish and ayin, spelling the word Rah, or Re’ah. The word Ra means bad, broken, and unproductive, whereas the word Re’ah means unified, connected, and at peace. This is how a Jew lives, and this is the lesson we have to learn and get right from the beginning of the year to its end.

With Tisha B’Av still a not so distant memory, we remind ourselves how we sat on the floor, hearing the depressing account of the destruction of our Beis HaMikdash, and with it every disaster that has befallen the Jewish people since. At midday, however, we get up, and we are told that the last few hours of this most painful day have the power to promote the birth of Moshiach. Our broken spirit can be transformed into a burning desire for improvement. The shofar forces us to confront our failures, to shatter them, and to connect back to our true selves, our souls, our Creator. When we do this, we elevate Hashem. “Our G-d has ascended with a blast.” And we see that this lesson was the one that allowed us as a people to rebuild after every painful event that we confronted. When the Jews landed on the shores of America with broken bodies and broken souls, key figures arose with a tear of joy as they ignited the Jewish spirit in those who had survived and rebuilt a world of Torah and service of Hashem. It seems that everywhere Jews have gone, they have cried. But they cry twice, and those second tears are tears of resolve and renewal.

Teshuva begins with the recognition of what was done, and what needs to be done. Our soul hears the message of the shofar: see what you have done, and see what you could do from now on. And we grab the opportunity to “call to Hashem from the constraints” – our self-imposed constraints – and when the ba’al toke’a calls out the fifth verse before beginning his blowing, he reminds us all: “I am happy with Your word like one who finds great treasure.”

On Rosh Hashanah we begin the Ten Days of Repentance, even though we have no formal repentance – no vidui or selichos – because it sets the GPS for the next week as we build up to Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah is the roadmap, Yom Kippur is the destination, and the days in-between are the journey. We go into the new year with holy advice from two angels among men: The Vilna Gaon and the Arizal. We shed two tears, of shame and of joy, and we start the work to get back to where we were supposed to be all along: loyally within the service of the King.

  1. Rabbeinu Eliyahu – the genius – of Vilna. 1720-1797. One of the foremost Lithuanian Rabbis in history.

  2. Yitzchak Luria. 1534-1572. A resident of Tzfas with the author of the Shulchan Aruch. One of the greatest Kabbalist of his time.

  3. Psalms 97:11

Related posts