By Sam Glaser
I left home for my cousin Gene Samson’s funeral feeling frustrated I was losing half my day, begrudgingly donning a black suit on a 90-degree L.A. scorcher. However, as soon as I entered the mortuary, I was immediately uplifted by seeing the faces of my extended family. There is a palpable soul-satisfaction when we gather together and perform the ancient ritual of burying a loved one.
Gene died at the ripe old age of eighty-three and was beloved by all who knew him. He had a winning personality and was functioning on all cylinders until he left this world. Funerals for the elderly are bittersweet affairs, combining mourning with humorous anecdotes and descriptions of their legacy. We cried for Gene’s widow, children and grandchildren, who had clearly lost their patriarch. But our tears were tempered by the awareness that Gene’s was a life fully lived and his departure, at least to me, was a celebration of life, more a bon voyage than a tragic ending.
Rabbi Mark Hyman eloquently led the service, mentioning that the timing of my cousin’s passing coincided with the beginning of Elul. At that moment, I realized I had been too busy to experience Elul, too obsessed with my self-imposed deadlines to make a spiritual accounting. It’s hard to smell the roses with your nose to the grindstone. I took time to wander the cemetery with my parents and pay respects at the various graves of our loved ones. I wept at my grandparents’ graves, an autonomic response whenever I see my dad getting misty-eyed. Perhaps I just needed to open my heart and have a “good cry.” Sometimes God’s kindness comes in the form of a funeral, getting interrupted from one’s work and having to wear a suit on a sweltering day.
Reacquainting oneself with the power of tears is the secret to unlocking the storehouse of simcha. Every passage of Torah and Nevi’im (Prophets) read over the holiday depicts different categories of this uniquely human response to joy and pain. Perhaps the best exercise during Elul is to relearn how to cry by examining the inspiration for our biblical heroes’ most poignant milestones. Here are some of the players in the “Parade of Tears,” based on an intriguing lecture I once heard in Jerusalem.
Our first tale comes from the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael from the home of Sarah and Avraham. This is the parasha where Avraham is told “do whatever Sarah tells you” (B’reishit 21:12), the primal marital survival tactic of saying “yes, dear” to one’s wife. At Sarah’s request, Avraham reluctantly sends Hagar and Yishmael out into the arid desert. When the water runs out, Hagar leaves her son a bowshot away so she won’t have to witness his misery. She cries her own tears of despondence and remarkably, God doesn’t respond to her anguish but instead hears “the cry of the boy.” The lesson: we can and should cry out when we are in pain. But give up? Never.
Next, we have the Haftorah describing Hannah as she weeps while beseeching God to grant her a child. Eli, the high priest, sees her mouthing words of prayer silently and assumes she’s yet another Jerusalem madwoman. Eventually, Eli recognizes his error and offers consolation and a blessing. Hannah feels confident her prayer has been heard and a year later gives birth to the infant who would become my namesake, the prophet Shmuel/Samuel. We learn from Hannah how to pray fervently, with words silently on our lips, and from Eli, how to respond with compassion.
On the second day of Rosh Hashana, the Torah introduces the next player in the celestial dance: this time it is Yitzchak and the scene is the infamous Akeidah, his near sacrifice at the hand of his father Avraham on Mount Moriah. This is one of the most difficult passages in our canon to grasp. At the age of forty, Yitzchak seems to be complicit in his own demise. Avraham is asked to destroy the fruit of his life’s labor. The Midrash tells us the angels were crying tears of disbelief and awe at their commitment. These tears fell into Yitzchak’s eyes, leading eventually to his blindness. These angelic tears represent the tears of injury, tears from damaging wounds that stay with us forever. No one is immune from crises, trauma and tragedy. Our challenge is whether we let destruction sabotage our spirit or if we rise from the ashes stronger and more deeply connected to Hashem.
The final textual character can be found in the second day Haftorah with our matriarch Rachel. She is weeping for her exiled children and will not be comforted. Rachel is laid to rest not in the Ma’arat HaMachpelah (ancestral burial cave) with the extended family, but along the road, so that her kever (grave) remains a beacon for all those in exile as they return to Jerusalem. Hers are the tears of redemption, tears spilled over millennia of our wandering and persecution, tears that God carefully collects as we march slowly but surely toward a perfected world.
There’s one more dancer in the Parade of Tears. It’s the cry of the shofar! Our shofar blasts, the centerpiece of the holiday, are modeled after the mournful wailing of Sisera’s mother. Sisera? I don’t recall hearing about him in Hebrew school. In the period of Judges, Sisera was the Hitler of his day, a tyrannical Canaanite general with the blood of thousands of Jews on his sword. After the miraculous defeat of his army led by the prophetess Devorah, Jewish heroine Yael cleverly waited at her tent for him to come by. She welcomed him with soothing milk and comfort and as he slept, drove a tent peg through his head. The Talmud asks: how did Sisera’s mother cry when her son neglected to return from battle? Long cries, short stuttering rasps or a combination? As usual for the Talmud, the rabbis are in complete disagreement. Hence we have the t’ki’ah, sh’varim and t’ruah blasts of the shofar, just to make sure we cover all the bases.
The blasts of the shofar represent the tears of loss of identity. We never learn Sisera’s mother’s name. Her identity is wrapped up in that of her son, the notorious general. Reclaiming identity is a prerequisite to celebrating Rosh Hashanah. Unless we stand on our own feet, we can never be counted, we are inauthentic, we are defying the very reason we were graciously given the gift of life. The sounding of the shofar reenacts the soul being “blown” into each of our bodies, as Hashem did with Adam in the Garden of Eden.
Preparations for Rosh Hashanah must include more than buying apples and honey. Once we clean our personal slate and regain clarity on our tafkid (life mission), the cries of the shofar mainline straight to our hearts and shatter the walls of complacency. Let us reach out to friends with an understanding ear and help the needy. Our tears of empathy unlock the gates for the prayers of all humanity.
On his deathbed, the Chassidic sage Rav Zusha explained he was crying not because he wasn’t as great as Moses—he just wanted to be the best Rav Zusha he could be. Yes, we must look out for our families and our community, and in the end, we must say hineni, taking ownership of our own destinies. Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. He has released 25 albums of his compositions, travels the world in concert, produces music for various media in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio and his book “The Joy of Judaism” is an Amazon bestseller.