By Rabbi Renée Bauer
Could any of us have predicted the year we have had when we were dipping apples in honey last Rosh Hashanah? It has been a very difficult year filled with the anxiety, loss and isolation caused by COVID, filled with pain as we watched more violence committed against Black Americans, and filled with fear as we watch the effects of climate change burn the west coast.
I suspect that most of us have shed tears during this year, whether about this collective pain or something more personal. We have shed tears of grief, loss, anger, and despair. We also may have shed tears of delight from laughing so hard, from welcoming a new baby into a family, or from seeing hopeful moments of change.
Sometimes the tears surprise us when they come and are cleansing when they dry up. No matter how or why they come, they are physical signs of an open heart, a heart that is experiencing the world emotionally and contains deep feelings within it, which need to be released.
Tears are a motif that weaves together the Biblical readings on Rosh Hashanah. Perhaps the sages who chose the texts were trying to teach us that these Yamim Noarim are a is a time for opening our hearts and cultivating the ability and strength to live emotionally in the world.
On first day Rosh Hashanah, we read in the Torah about tears that Hagar sheds when she thinks her son Ishmael is going to die. We then read the Haftarah in which Hannah weeps as she prays to God to conceive a child. On second day Rosh Hashanah, we read in the Haftarah portion about Rachel, the matriarch of our people, as she weeps inconsolably for the nation of Israel who has been exiled from its homeland.
And we recognize the absence of tears shed when Abraham ties Isaac down on a makeshift altar and lifts a knife to cut his son’s throat in the Torah text of the binding of Isaac read on second day Rosh Hashanah. Tradition adds the missing tears in the form of Midrashim, narrative commentaries. One midrash describes the weeping of the angels who were watching Abraham’s binding of Isaac.
The biblical readings of Rosh Hashanah move from the tears of Hannah and Hagar, which well up out of personal pain and sorrow, to the tears of Rachel and the angels, which emerge out of empathy for others. We learn from these sacred texts that we must notice and allow the tears of our personal life to flow. By living in our own lives in an emotionally open way, we are then able to move from the tears of our individual situations of first day Rosh Hashanah to the empathetic tears of second day Rosh Hashanah, which lead us into the work of Yom Kippur of repairing our broken relationships and our broken world.
Many of us have and will shed tears over the holidays during the pandemic. We will miss the traditions that ground us during this time of year. We will miss the large gatherings at synagogue where there are people we only see once a year. We will miss the family gatherings in which we share special holiday meals. We will miss singing, praying, and greeting one another. I urge you to let your tears flow and give permission to whatever emotions come.
The work of this season, the work of teshuva, is the work of staying open-hearted and cultivating empathy for ourselves and others. Perhaps this year, having been so shaken from our routines and assumptions, we can make the change needed in our lives.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May you be sealed for a good life this Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Renée Bauer is Director of Chaplaincy and Outreach at Jewish Social Services of Madison