A time to cry
by Rabbi Avi Shafran
Am Echad Resources
August 16, 2002
Chemical analysis of human tears seems to bear out something we all innately
feel: emotional pain and physical pain occupy different universes. The
tears our eyes produce when they are irritated, or when the bodies we carry
through life are hurting, have different components from those that trickle
down our cheeks when it is our souls that ache.
Only humans produce the latter sort. As King Solomon wrote in Koheles: "The
one who increases in knowledge increases in pain."
Only one commandment in the Torah involves crying, though it is not readily
recognized as such. For the crying is done by proxy, through the shofar, on
The shofar call is, of course, above all, a call to repentance, a sort of
alarm clock of the conscience, as Maimonides describes it. But the rabbis
of the Talmud characterized it as a literal cry. While the tekiah-sound is
a call to attention, the truah, the central component of the Rosh Hashana
shofar-sounds, they said, is either a wailing sound or a series of moans; we
incorporate both opinions in our practice today. What, though, is the
shofar crying about?
Rosh Hashana, to be sure, is the Day of Judgment, and so we are rightfully
uneasy at the implications of that fact. But might there be something
deeper to the shofar's wailing and moaning than simple fear? A haunting
Talmudic passage may hold a hint.
In the tractate Berachot, we are told of several instances of great scholars
who became seriously, painfully ill; one was Rabbi Elazar. Rabbi Yochanan,
renowned not only for his scholarship but for his ethereal handsomeness,
came to visit and found his ill colleague lying in a dark room. He pulled
up his sleeve, the Talmud recounts, and light spilled from his beautiful
skin into the room. He saw Rabbi Elazar crying and asked him why.
If it was for the Torah he hadn't been able to study - Rabbi Yochanan
reassured the bedridden sage - that is no reason to cry; G-d judges people
not by how much they accomplished but rather by whether they made their best
effort. And if it was because of the elusiveness of material success, "not
every man merits to sit at two tables" - Rabbi Elazar may not have attained
wealth in this world but surely had amassed much reward in the World to
And, continued Rabbi Yochanan, if you are crying because of the death of
your children, I have suffered more; ten of my own have perished.
Finally, Rabbi Elazar spoke up. "I am crying," he said, indicating Rabbi
Yochanan's shining arm, "because this beauty is destined for the dust."
"For that?" responded Rabbi Yochanan. "For that, indeed, it is fitting to
cry." And the two scholars cried together.
No one with warm blood running through his veins could read that account
without a shudder born of the realization of what brought those sages to
We all try to crowd our lives with enough diversions to minimize
opportunities for reflecting on our mortality. But serious people cannot
forever avoid the thought, and righteous ones make no effort to do so at
The late, revered dean of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, Rabbi Yitzchok
Hutner, perceived in the act of blowing the shofar a hint to the earliest
event commemorated by Rosh Hashana: the creation of man. Shofar-blowing, he
observed, involves a force of breath, recalling the animation of Adam - "And
He blew into his nostrils the spirit of life, and man became a living soul."
The Jewish mystical tradition describes Adam's physical state before his sin
as "shining" with a special splendor - referred to as his "shufra," or
It is the precise word Rabbi Elazar used to describe Rabbi Yochanan's skin.
Could it be the root of the word "shofar"?
Might the shofar, in other words, be crying out its own name, in memory of
the perfection with which our ultimate ancestor was created - squandered by
sin, destined for death?
"Shufra!" it may be calling from earth to heaven. "Beauty! The beauty that
is a human being, that was once the perfect human being! Now subject to
For such, indeed, it is fitting to cry. And through our shofarot, we cry
Our crying, though, is not an expression of hopelessness. On the contrary,
the very recognition of what sin has wrought is, according to our tradition,
the first step toward regaining it, the first step on the road of
repentance. When our regret of our individual loads of sin - as well as
humanity's for its collective one - are total and sincere, we are taught,
then we will have utilized our pain for ultimate gain. Even death itself,
as Isaiah foretold, "will be swallowed forever, and G-d will wipe tears from
And that same prophet describes that day, when death is erased and history
ended. "And on that day," he foresees, "there will be sounded a great
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