Parashat Veyetze: The mystery of tears

An uniquely human behavior comes under spiritual examination.

Painting by Yoram Raanan (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
(Painting by Yoram Raanan; ;
Many years ago, when I was studying for my doctorate in psychology, we had a number of fairly strict requirements in addition to our courses in psychology.
For example, we were expected to possess a reading knowledge of two foreign languages, and Hebrew was then not one of them. We were also required to study statistics and to take several courses in what was called “the biological bases of behavior.”
These courses were designed to provide us would-be experts on the “mind” with some understanding of the workings of the “body.”
The instructor was a specialist in human physiology who lectured only 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 the physiology of sleep, and another, the effects of physical exercise on emotions. But this week, I’ll refer instead to a third topic I selected: a talk I gave about tears.
If I recall correctly, I titled the talk “Shedding Tears: A Uniquely Human Behavior.”
It amazed me how little was known about tears back then. In preparation for this column, I had a brief “consultation” with Google and discovered that not much more is known about the subject today than was known back in my graduate school days.
What we do know is summarized in the simple dictionary definition: “A tear is a drop of the clear salty liquid that is secreted by the lachrymal gland of the eye to lubricate the surface between the eyeball and the eyelid to wash away irritants.”
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.
Now how does the phenomenon of tears relate to this week’s Torah portion? Let me assure you, dear reader, that there is a connection, and it is to these remarkable 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” (Genesis 29:16-17).
Many find it curious that the Bible accentuates Rachel’s physical beauty. There is, however, ample precedent for that. Her predecessors Rebekah and Sarah are both described as exceedingly beautiful.
But 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 it is the latter, why mention it? Rashi helps us answer these questions. He comments, “Leah supposed that she was destined to marry Esau, hence she shed tears. She heard people say that Rebekah had two sons and Laban two daughters. Surely, the older daughter will marry the older son, and the younger daughter the younger son.”
This prediction, this assumption that she was destined to spend her life with the wicked Esau, troubled her greatly, and she cried and cried until her tears disfigured her beautiful face.
Hassidic 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 tshuva, 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 time again in King David’s Book of Psalms. Thus, in Psalm 42, we read: “Like a hart 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; are they not in 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 Song of Ascents, Psalm 126, which reads: “They who sow in tears shall reap with 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, and we would be well advised to learn from Leah how and when to cry.
It was about the time that I presented that paper on the physiology of tears in graduate school that I first read and appreciated what has since become one of my favorite novels, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. I favor it for many reasons, one being that in this novel, Dickens portrays a Jew as a kind, compassionate and heroic figure.
But I also admire the following quotation, one that I have copied down for reference in my work as both a psychotherapist and spiritual guide: “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears... I was better after I had cried, than before – more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.” 
The writer is a rabbi and doctor of psychotherapy. He is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union of North America. This column originally appeared on