World of the Sages: The power of tears

What is the most efficacious avenue to the Almighty?

What is the most efficacious avenue to the Almighty? At first glance the obvious answer is prayer. Indeed the Talmud records various statements of the sage Rabbi Elazar with regard to the potency of prayer (B. Berachot 32b), each supported by a biblical verse. Thus, Rabbi Elazar tells us that prayer is greater - meaning more effective - than good deeds. To support this contention, he points to the biblical episode in which Moses beseeched the Almighty to allow him to enter the Promised Land. This request was denied, yet due to his heartfelt prayer, Moses was granted the opportunity to see the land from afar. Moses, whose actions were unsurpassed, was answered only when he turned to prayer. Rabbi Elazar goes further: Not only is prayer more effective than good deeds, but in Temple times prayer - service of the heart - was more valuable than the sacrificial service. Yet he seems to deem the tremendous potency of prayer obsolete: "From the day that the Temple was destroyed, the heavenly gates of prayer were locked" (ibid; B. Bava Metzia 59a). Thus our prayers are no longer accepted as they were previously. The source offered for this conclusion is Jeremiah's lament following the destruction of the First Temple: "Though I will cry out and plead, He shut out my prayer" (Lamentations 3:8). Commentators, perhaps shaken by this radical understanding, suggest that the Almighty continues to answer prayers, yet they are not as readily received or as quickly answered (Meiri, 13th century, Provence). Rabbi Elazar appears to add a postscript of hope: "Though the gates of prayer have been locked, nevertheless, the gates of tears have not been locked." This exception is derived from the verse "Hear my prayer, O God, give ear to my outcry; to my tears be not silent" (Psalms 39:13). We beseech the Almighty to hear our crying prayers and not to be indifferent to our tears: God appears not to hear our prayers at all, yet the Almighty sees our tears but sadly chooses to ignore them. Our tears, therefore, make their way before God, while our prayers are locked out (Rashi, 11th century, France). Thus the most valuable path to the Almighty is through heartfelt tears. How did the razing of the Temple affect the acceptance of our prayers? Rabbi Elazar explains that the Temple's destruction also came with an iron wall that now separates Israel from its father in heaven. This unyielding separator effectively closed the prayer channels to God. Given this iron curtain between us and our creator, how do tears still make their way heavenward? The famed scholar Rabbi Akiva was inspired at a late age to begin learning Torah after he saw water dripping on a stone and slowly eroding a hole through the rock (Avot D'Rabbi Nathan A 6). "If soft water can pierce hard rock, surely the Torah can penetrate my callous heart," he reasoned. Though an iron curtain stands between us and the Almighty, a persistent stream of tears can pierce this barrier over time and make their way before God. Why do tears find an elusive path to the Almighty, while prayers are staved off? A leading ethical teacher of the last generation offered an explanation for the relationship between tears and prayers. Rabbi Eliahu Eliezer Dessler (1892-1953) - or as he was known Rabbi Elya Lazer - was born in Latvia and educated in the spirit of the Musar movement, the Jewish ethics movement popularized in 19th-century Eastern Europe. When his father lost his successful timber business after the Russian Revolution, the family relocated to England. In the late 1940s, Rabbi Dessler moved to Palestine and was appointed the spiritual counselor in Bnei Brak's Ponevezh Yeshiva, a position in which he served until his death. Rabbi Dessler suggests that the closed gates of prayer are not to be found in the heavens; in fact, the Talmud is describing our hearts that have been cordoned off from spirituality. So sealed are our insides that we cannot break out and approach the Almighty. Even though we cognitively know that we should escape our own entrapment, we cannot emotionally overcome the blockage. Only through intense prayer that is so earnest that we are brought to tears can we break through the blockade and draw near God. Thus Rabbi Dessler sees prayer and tears as the same act, albeit with different levels of heartfelt intensity. It is the depth of sincerity indicated by the tears that penetrates the heavenly fortifications. In another talmudic passage, a different sage boldly says that even a iron barrier cannot separate Israel from its father in heaven (B. Pesahim 85b; B. Sotah 38b). We might suggest that the two dicta on the separating wall are not contradictory: Indeed an iron barricade stands between us and the Almighty, a barrier that our prayers cannot penetrate. Yet this obstruction cannot succeed in preventing our communion with the Almighty, for our constant tears are able to pierce this metal stockade. The hassidic master Rabbi Menahem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk (1787-1859) related that when his colleague Rabbi Yitzhak Kalish (1779-1848) of Warka in Poland died, he expected his friend to visit him in a dream and share with him the nature of his journey through the supernal worlds after death. When the Warka Rebbe did not come, the Kotzker made a spiritual voyage to find his friend. He traveled from palace to palace, but his friend was nowhere to be found. Finally he discovered the Warka Rebbe leaning on his stick by a sea that was making an awful sound. "What are you doing here, my friend?" asked the Kotzker. "Don't you recognize this?" replied the Warka. "It is the ocean of tears of pain and anguish, of longing and of hope." It was then that the Kotzker recognized the sound of bitter crying. The Warka Rebbe continued: "I promised that I would stand by this ocean until God dried up all the tears of the world." Such is the value of our tears. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.