By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Many years ago, when I was studying for my doctorate in psychology, one of my instructors was a specialist in human physiology who only lectured sporadically. Instead, he had each of us choose a topic of interest to us, research it thoroughly, and present our findings to the class. I still remember some of the topics I selected. One was a talk I gave about tears. I entitled the talk “”Shedding Tears: A Uniquely Human Behavior.”
It amazed me at how little was known about tears back then. And, as I’ve discovered, not much more is known about the subject today. We still know little about the physiological explanations for the correlation between tears and mood improvement, and questions as to why women shed tears more easily than men are still largely unresolved.
We are on solid ground when we explain why onions stimulate tears, or why our noses run when we cry. We remain in the dark when we attempt to understand the significance of the fact that crying for emotional reasons seems to be unique to humans. Crocodiles shed tears, but not because they are emotionally upset or aesthetically inspired.
The phenomenon of human tears is connected to this week’s parsha, Vayetzeh (Genesis 28:10-32:3), in these verses: “Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes; and Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance.”
Many find it curious that the Bible accentuates Rachel’s physical beauty. There is, however, ample precedent for that. Her predecessors, Rebecca and Sarah, are both described as exceedingly beautiful.
Why is Leah’s physical appearance denigrated? Why do we need to be told that her eyes were weak, soft, and tender? Is this facial feature of Leah’s a virtue or a blemish? And if so, why mention it?
Rashi comments, “Leah supposed that she was destined to marry Esau, hence she shed tears. She heard people say that Rebecca had two sons and Laban two daughters. Surely, the older daughter will marry the older son, and the younger daughter the younger son.” The assumption that she was destined to spend her life with the wicked Esau troubled her greatly, and she cried until her tears disfigured her beautiful face.
Chassidic masters have interpreted this seemingly superficial difference between Rachel’s pristine beauty and Leah’s imperfect appearance as symbolic of two types of moral heroines. Rachel represents the perfect tzaddeket who encounters no challenges to her moral perfection. Leah, on the other hand, exemplifies the person who overcomes obstacles and experiences setbacks in her struggle to achieve the status of tzaddeket. Leah’s tears are the tears of a ba’alat teshuvah, one who has known disappointment and failure in her progress toward perfection and whose tears are an essential component of her moral triumph.
This view of tears as part and parcel of the struggle of the searching soul is found time and again in King David’s Book of Psalms. In psalm 42, we read: “Like a hind crying for water, my soul cries for You, O God…my tears have been my food day and night; I am ever taunted with, ‘Where is your God?’”
And in psalm 56, we learn that not only do tears comprise the experience of the spiritual seeker, but that the Almighty keeps track of tears, cherishing them and preserving them: “You keep count of my wanderings; You put my tears into Your flask; into Your record.”
Finally, the book of Psalms teaches us that tears shed in the interest of drawing closer to God not only are eventually effective, but that those tears are transformed into songs of joy. Thus, we have become familiar with the phrase in the Shir HaMaalot, or Song of Ascents, psalm 126, which reads: “They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy.”
Leah’s weak eyes are not a physical defect. Her tears are emblems of her moral strivings. Her tears are not signs of weakness or cowardice; quite the contrary, they encompass her strength of character. We would be well advised to learn from Leah how and when to cry.
Let me conclude with this Talmudic teaching, found in Tractate Berakhot 32b: “Rabbi Elazar also said: Since the day the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer were locked, as it is said: ‘Though I plead and call out, He shuts out my prayer.’ (Lamentations 3:80) Yet, despite the fact that the gates of prayer were locked, the gates of tears were never locked, as it is stated: ‘Hear my prayer, Lord, and give ear to my pleading, keep not silence at my tears.’ (Psalms 39:13)”