“The Gates For Tears Never Close”: Crying and God

24 09 2013

As we end this Jewish Elul-and-Tishrei season of intense prayer and God hearing us, I wanted to share this text from the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metzi’a 59a and Berachot 32b):

א”ר אלעזר מיום שנחרב בית המקדש ננעלו שערי תפלה שנאמר (איכה ג) גם כי אזעק ואשוע שתם תפלתי ואע”פ ששערי תפלה ננעלו שערי דמעות לא ננעלו שנאמר (תהילים לט) שמעה תפלתי ה’ ושועתי האזינה אל דמעתי אל תחרש

R. Eleazar said: Since the destruction of the Temple, the gates of prayer are locked, for it is written, “Also when I cry out, He shuts out my prayer” (Lamentations 3:8). Yet, though the gates for prayer are locked, the gates for tears are not, for it is written, “Hear my prayer, God, and listen to my cry; do not be silent in the face of my tears” (Psalms 39:13).

I love Jewish texts on tears and crying. I cry a lot and don’t pray formally as much as I once did, so I think about this contrast sometimes. I also sometimes find myself crying while praying, and I hope that no one sees me. Except God. I want God to see my tears.

There were a few such texts about God hearing our tears over the High Holidays, in the prayer liturgy. One of my favorites appears in the Neilah service at the end of Yom Kippur. In a piyyut, or liturgical poem, called אזכרה אלהים ואהמיה (written in the 8th c. in southern Italy, according to piyyut.org.il) that is said towards the closing of the day, Ashkenazim say:

תָּמַכְתִּי יְתֵדוֹתַי בִּשְׁלֹשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה תֵבוֹת
וּבְשַׁעֲרֵי דְמָעוֹת כִּי לֹא נִשְׁלָבוֹת
לָכֵן שָׁפַכְתִּי שִׂיחַ פְּנֵי בוֹחֵן לִבּוֹת
בָּטוּחַ אֲנִי בָּאֵלֶּה וּבִזְכוּת שְׁלֹשֶׁת אָבוֹת

יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ שׁוֹמֵעַ קוֹל בְּכִיוֹת
שֶׁתָּשִׂים דִּמְעוֹתֵינוּ בְּנֹאדְךָ לִהְיוֹת
וְתַצִּילֵנוּ מִכָּל גְּזֵרוֹת אַכְזָרִיּוֹת
כִּי לְךָ לְבַד עֵינֵינוּ תְלוּיוֹת

The Artscroll translation reads:

I have placed my reliance on the Thirteen Attributes,
and on the gates of tears for they are never closed;
therefore I have poured out my prayer to Him Who tests hearts.
I trust in these and in the merit of the three patriarchs.

May it be Your will, You who hears the sound of weeping,
that You place our tears in Your flask permanently,
and that You rescue us from all cruel decrees,
for on You alone are our eyes fixed.

What is this flask of tears that God holds onto? Good question. Check out Psalms 56:9:

ט נֹדִי, סָפַרְתָּה-אָתָּה: שִׂימָה דִמְעָתִי בְנֹאדֶךָ; הֲלֹא, בְּסִפְרָתֶךָ

You have counted my wanderings; You have put my tears into Your bottle; are they not in Your book?

Finally, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to tell a story about the Vorker Rebbe and the Kotzker Rebbe, two hasidic rabbis. It’s called The Sea of Tears and is stunningly beautiful. You can read it here, among other places.

May the God who never closes the gates of tears hear and heal all of our tears.





Jewish texts that spark discussion about suffering in Judaism

9 09 2013

I co-taught a class recently at a private Jewish event, about Jewish life and suffering due to mental illness (broadly defined–not only depression). We did not really discuss theology. The purpose of the discussion was just that–to discuss mental health and suffering through a Jewish lens. In retrospect, we accomplished our goal of having a discussion, but perhaps it all could have been a bit more focused. Everyone has such different experiences with both Judaism and mental health that it’s really hard to pin down something specific to talk about, beyond sharing our own personal experiences and how we have been able to–or unable to–help others.

These were the texts that my co-facilitator and I shared with the group. We used these in various ways. I would love to hear any thoughts or reflections that you may have on these texts, or on the problem that I mentioned above (of narrowing the focus of the session).

The Biblical translations are based on the new JPS (1985).

Psalms 100:2

עִבְד֣וּ אֶת־הבְּשִׂמְחָ֑ה בֹּ֥אוּ לְ֝פָנָ֗יו בִּרְנָנָֽה׃

Worship the Lord in gladness; come into His presence with shouts of joy.

 Ethics of the Fathers, 1:15

הֱוֶי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת

Greet every person with a pleasant face.

Psalms 51

יח כִּי, לֹאתַחְפֹּץ זֶבַח וְאֶתֵּנָה; עוֹלָה, לֹא תִרְצֶה.

18 You do not want me to bring sacrifices;
You do not desire burnt offerings.

יט זִבְחֵי אֱלֹקִים, רוּחַ נִשְׁבָּרָה:
לֵבנִשְׁבָּר וְנִדְכֶּהאֱלֹקִים, לֹא תִבְזֶה.

19 True sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.

Lamentations 1:16

עַלאֵלֶּה אֲנִי בוֹכִיָּה, עֵינִי עֵינִי יֹרְדָה מַּיִם–כִּירָחַק מִמֶּנִּי מְנַחֵם, מֵשִׁיב נַפְשִׁי

For these things do I weep, my eyes flow with tears. Far from me is any comforter who might revive my spirit…

ויקרא רבה (מרגליות) פרשה ז:ב – Midrash Leviticus Rabba 7:2

וידבר האל משה לאמור: צו את אהרון ואת בניו לאמר זאת תורת העולה (ויקרא ו:אב)

[ב] זבחי אלקים רוח נשברה(תהלים נא, יט)

אמר רב אבא בר יודן: כל מה שפסל בבהמה הכשיר באדם. מה פסל בבהמה, עורת או שבור או חרוץ או יבלת אולא תקריבו אלה לה (ויקרא כב, כב), הכשיר באדם, זבחי אלקים רוח נשברה, לב נשבר ונדכה אלקים לא תבזה(תהלים נא, יט).

אמר רב אלכסנדרי: ההדיוט הזה, אם משתמש בכלי שבור גניי הוא לו, אבל הקבה כל כלי תשמישיו שבורין הן, דכתיב קרוב הלנשברי לב(תהלים לד, יט), הרופא לשבורי לב(תהלים קמז, ג), מרום וקדוש אשכון ואת דכא ושפל רוח להחיות רוח שפלים ולהחיות לב נדכאים(ישעיה נז, טו), לב נשבר ונדכה.

God spoke to Moses saying: Command Aaron and his sons saying, ‘This shall be the law of the burnt offering…’ (Vayikra 6:1-2)
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou will not despise (Ps. 51:19).

R. Abba b. Judan said: Whatever the holy One, blessed be He, declared unfit in the case of an animal, He declared fit in the case of man. In animals he declared unfit: Anything blind, or injured, or maimed, or with a wen, boil-scar, or scurvy – such you shall not offer to the Lord (Lev. 22, 22), whereas in man He declared fit A broken and contrite heart (Ps. 51:19) [to be true sacrifice]. R. Alexandri said: If an ordinary person makes use of broken vessel, it is a disgrace for him, but the vessels used by the Holy One, blessed be He, are precisely broken ones, as it is said, The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; those crushed in spirit He delivers (Ps. 34:19); He heals the broken hearts (Ps. 147:3); I dwell in the high and holy place; Yet with the contrite and the lowly in spirit – reviving the spirits of the lowly, reviving the hearts of the contrite (Isaiah 57: 15). A broken and contrite heart

Psalms 6

א לַמְנַצֵּחַ בִּנְגִינוֹת, עַלהַשְּׁמִינִית; מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד.

1 For the Leader; with instrumental music; on the sheminith. A psalm of David.

ב יְהוָה, אַלבְּאַפְּךָ תוֹכִיחֵנִי; וְאַלבַּחֲמָתְךָ תְיַסְּרֵנִי.

2 O LORD, do not punish me in anger, do not chastise me in fury.

ג חָנֵּנִי ה‘, כִּי אֻמְלַלאָנִי: רְפָאֵנִי ה‘–כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ עֲצָמָי.

3 Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I languish; heal me, O LORD, for my bones shake with terror.

ד וְנַפְשִׁי, נִבְהֲלָה מְאֹד; ואת (וְאַתָּה) ה‘, עַדמָתָי.

4 My whole being is stricken with terror; while You, LORD—O, how long!

ה שׁוּבָה ה‘, חַלְּצָה נַפְשִׁי; הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי, לְמַעַן חַסְדֶּךָ.

5 O LORD! rescue me! Deliver me as befits your faithfulness.

ו כִּי אֵין בַּמָּוֶת זִכְרֶךָ; בִּשְׁאוֹל, מִי יוֹדֶהלָּךְ.

6 For there is no praise of You among the dead; in Sheol, who can acclaim You?

ז יָגַעְתִּי, בְּאַנְחָתִיאַשְׂחֶה בְכָללַיְלָה, מִטָּתִי; בְּדִמְעָתִי, עַרְשִׂי אַמְסֶה.

7 I am weary with groaning; every night I drench my bed; I melt my couch in tears.

ח עָשְׁשָׁה מִכַּעַס עֵינִי; עָתְקָה, בְּכָלצוֹרְרָי.

8 My eyes are wasted by vexation; worn out because of all my foes.

ט סוּרוּ מִמֶּנִּי, כָּלפֹּעֲלֵי אָוֶן: כִּישָׁמַע ה‘, קוֹל בִּכְיִי.

9 Away from me, all you evildoers, for the LORD heeds the sound of weeping.

י שָׁמַע ה‘, תְּחִנָּתִי; ה‘, תְּפִלָּתִי יִקָּח.

10 The LORD heeds my plea, the LORD accepts my prayer.

יא יֵבֹשׁוּ, וְיִבָּהֲלוּ מְאֹדכָּלאֹיְבָי; יָשֻׁבוּ, יֵבֹשׁוּ רָגַע.

11 All my enemies will be frustrated and stricken with terror; they will turn back in an instant, frustrated.

Psalms 13

א לַמְנַצֵּחַ, מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד.

1 For the leader. A psalm of David.

ב עַדאָנָה ה‘, תִּשְׁכָּחֵנִי נֶצַח; עַדאָנָה, תַּסְתִּיר אֶתפָּנֶיךָ מִמֶּנִּי.

2 How long, O LORD; will You ignore me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?

ג עַדאָנָה אָשִׁית עֵצוֹת, בְּנַפְשִׁייָגוֹן בִּלְבָבִי יוֹמָם;

עַדאָנָה, יָרוּם אֹיְבִי עָלָי.

3 How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?

ד הַבִּיטָה עֲנֵנִי, האֱלֹקָי; הָאִירָה עֵינַי, פֶּןאִישַׁן הַמָּוֶת.

4 Look at me, answer me, O LORD, my God! Restore the luster to my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death;

ה פֶּןיֹאמַר אֹיְבִי יְכָלְתִּיו; צָרַי יָגִילוּ, כִּי אֶמּוֹט.

5 Lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him”; my foes exult when I totter.

ו וַאֲנִי, בְּחַסְדְּךָ בָטַחְתִּייָגֵל לִבִּי, בִּישׁוּעָתֶךָ:

אָשִׁירָה לַיהוָה, כִּי גָמַל עָלָי.

6 But I trust in Your faithfulness, my heart will exult in your deliverance.
I will sing to the Lord, for He has been good to me.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, excerpt from “Redemption, Prayer, and Talmud Torah,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, 17:2 (Spring 1978), p. 65 (I have shared this text on this blog before)

Judaism, in contradistinction to mystical quietism, which recommended toleration of pain, wants man to cry out aloud against any kind of pain, to react indignantly to all kinds of injustice or unfairness. For Judaism held that the individual who displays indifference to pain and suffering, who meekly reconciles himself to the ugly, disproportionate and unjust in life, is not capable of appreciating beauty and goodness. Whoever permits his legitimate needs to go unsatisfied will never be sympathetic to the crying needs of others. A human morality based on love and friendship, on sharing in the travail of others, cannot be practiced if the person’s own need-awareness is dull, and he does not know what suffering is. Hence Judaism rejected models of existence, which deny human need, such as the angelic or the monastic. For Judaism, need-awareness constitutes part of the definition of human existence. Need-awareness turns into a passional experience, into a suffering awareness. Dolorem ferre ergo sum — I suffer, therefore I am — to paraphrase Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. While the Cartesian cogito would also apply to an angel or even to the devil, our inference is limited to man: neither angel nor devil knows suffering.

Therefore, prayer in Judaism, unlike the prayer of classical mysticism, is bound up with the human needs, wants, drives and urges, which make man suffer. Prayer is the doctrine of human needs.”

Wishing all of my readers a sweet, happy, and healthy New Year!





The First Fire And The Human Capacity To Banish Darkness

7 12 2012

As we prepare to go into the earliest Shabbat of the year (ugh) and then Chanukah (yay?), let us remember: God gave us both darkness and the tools for eradicating it.

“The Fire” – Rabbi Levi said: The light which was created on the first day of creation served for 36 hours after Adam ate from the tree: from Friday until Saturday night. […] Once Shabbat came out, [the first] darkness began to arrive. Adam became fearful and said: “This is what God said when he cursed me upon eating from the tree – the snake will come and bite me!”
Said Rabbi Levi: At that time God presented Adam with two flints. He struck them together and a fire burst forth. He blessed them saying: בורא מאורי האש – “the creator of fire.”
Shmuel said: Therefore we say the blessing for fire on motzaei Shabbat [Saturday night after Shabbat ends] – because that is the origin of its creation.

–Talmud Yerushalmi, Brachot 8:5

האש – רבי לוי בשם רבי בזירה שלשים ושש שעות שימשה אותה האורה שנבראת ביום הראשון. שתים עשרה בערב שבת ושתים עשרה בליל שבת ושתים עשרה בשבת

 […]
כיון שיצאת שבת התחיל משמש החושך ובא ונתירא אדם ואמר אלו הוא שכתב בו (בראשית ג) הוא ישופך ראש ואתה תשופנו עקב שמא בא לנשכני ואמר (תהילים קל) אך חשך ישופני. אמר רבי לוי באותו שעה זימן הקב”ה שני רעפין והקישן זה לזה ויצא מהן האור הדא הוא דכתיב (שם) ולילה אור בעדני ובירך עליה בורא מאורי האש. שמואל אמר לפיכך מברכין על האש במוצאי שבתות שהיא תחילת ברייתה.

תלמוד ירושלמי ברכות דף ס,ב פרק ח הלכה ה–





“Why did God give me mental illness?”

19 12 2010

This is Chabad.org’s answer to the difficult question of “Why did God give me mental illness?,” a subset of the age-old question of, “Why does God cause good people to suffer?” or the slightly easier, “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?”

If we think that this–“Why did God give me mental illness?”–is a good question to ask (see below for an alternative), then their answer isn’t bad. It boils down to:

1. God gives each of us both challenges and the means to overcome them. So God isn’t setting you up for failure any more than he sets anyone else up for failure. You may just have greater challenges than others, but that also means that God gave you better skills and talents for overcoming them. I found this thought very comforting when I was younger. I learned something similar about the Akeidah [binding of Isaac] when I was studying that in school–God tests those whom he is sure can pass the test. God only asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, his “only” son, Isaac, because he knew that Abraham wouldn’t.

2. God hopes that we’ll use these challenges and our talents at overcoming them to help not just ourselves, but also others. We may help others who don’t share our problems, as well as those who do. That was a huge motivation for me to start this blog and it also motivates each and every infrequent post. I need to take my pain and suffering and use it, as much as possible, to (a) show others that they aren’t alone and (b) show others that hope is possible, when I am feeling hope. (I only feel hope sometimes, but such is life.)

Of course, this answer is only good if we think that God gives us mental illnesses for a reason, as opposed to a more laissez-faire attitude towards theology, which is more like: God may be ultimately in charge, but he doesn’t make small decisions like deciding why I got depressed instead of my neighbor, Ms. Perfect. Good things happen and bad things happen and that’s how God wants the world to work, but he doesn’t muck around in the details. I have mental illness because of a combination of biological vulnerabilities and a crappy childhood, and it really sucks, but that’s just how it is. God lets bad things happen, but He doesn’t do them to us. (Likewise, God lets good things happen, but He doesn’t personally choose us to be the recipients of dumb luck.) Sometimes, it is easier to think this way. Certainly, when discussing the Holocaust or why innocent children die, it’s easier to think that God just kind of lets the cards fall where they may, based on human agency, in regards to the little details.

I am pretty sure that both attitudes towards God’s intervention in the world are defensible from a traditional Jewish perspective, but feel free to disagree.

Do you have other answers to “Why did God give me mental illness,” or think that Chabad.org’s answer is good, bad, or neutral? How do you deal with theology and your struggles in life?