We Come Here To Cry: Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Erev Rosh Hashanah, September 20, 2017

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is excerpted from the sermon shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Erev Rosh Hashanah, September 20, 2017. We encourage you to make comments below and/or to share the link to this post to social media such as Facebook or Twitter to allow the topic it raises to be shared more widely.

All year long we give ourselves plenty of room to come here to synagogue to mark happy milestones and holy occasions in our lives. But Rosh Hashanah is different. While there are many holiday traditions, on Rosh Hashanah in a unique way, our entire Jewish people comes together to cry.

We come here to cry— or perhaps I should say to cry out with the shofar. The blow on the ram’s horn tomorrow and again at the conclusion of Yom Kippur tells us that tekiah, we are here, shevarim, we are broken, and teruah, we can put ourselves together once more. The cries of the shofar provoke us. They exalt us. They trigger our memories and our desires. Tonight as Yuntif begins, I want to suggest that the cries we come here to bring tell us what Judaism tells all its adherents: that it is ok, to come right out in the open and cry.

According to a recent NY Times article (“A Baby Wails and the Adult World Comes Running,” Natalie Angier, New York Times, September 4, 2017) a normal baby cries for two hours over the course of a day. Yet apparently, scientists now believe the infant cannot acknowledge any distinction between crying and other basic infant activities, like “being awake” or “breathing.” The two acts, breathing and crying, are physically, neurologically, primally intertwined. Scientists discovered that the small cluster of brain cells in charge of fast, active respiration also grant a baby animal the power to cry. In a finding which astonished investigators, studies in which animals were stripped of this key node — found that in the case of infant mice, they’d open their mouths to cry, but nothing came out. As a result, their mothers ignored them, and they would begin to die.

In other words, the life force we share with all animals requires not just that we are able to cry. In fact, our cry must elicit a response in the form of the attention and love of another living Being who cares for us.

Just thinking of the shofar in this way soothes me. It makes me look back on the tears that stream down my face from one year to the next. For example, a year doesn’t pass where a tear doesn’t stream down my cheek when I’m standing next to Cantor Sager as she is pouring forth her spirit in the Avinu Malkenu before the ark. I recognize my emotion in that moment as the tears of a grown man, and not the crying I remember from growing up as the baby of my family. Then crying was a sign that my feelings were hurt or that I was scared or startled. Now crying happens only when people around me have managed to signal that it is safe to be vulnerable in their presence. I’m not looking for a friend to fix what hurt me or soothe what overwhelms me. At best I need a gentle embrace, or a friend’s hand placed on my shoulder.

I wonder if we tonight we might imagine God offering such a gentle presence. Perhaps God is telling us: it is ok to cry, to admit that we are, in the words of recording artist Dan Nichols, “perfect the way we are…and a little broken too” and nurturing what is in our heart at any given moment: be it tears or laughs or or any authentic expression of our true feelings.

Our sages taught that it is precisely God’s presence holding us tenderly when we cry on this holiday. Zman Tekiat Shofar, they taught, the time of the blowing of the shofar, Hu Zman Teshuvah, this is the time of our most earnest repentance. It is precisely the shofar cry that places before God our intention for renewal. (Days of Awe, Days of Joy: Chasidic Insights Into the Festivals of Tishrei, Ed., Rabbi Eli Friedman, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1997, p. 113.)

As pure as that sounds, we are also taught that our repentance during the blowing of the shofar is composed of both pain and joy. It is a moment when we hold at once, both deep regret for our past and hopeful intentions for our future. No wonder so many stories and teachings about Rosh Hashanah include crying. For that is a lot of emotion to hold at once. But the Torah keeps encouraging us: God listens for our cries.

  • In Genesis 23, God listens to tears of grief. When Sarah dies, we read, Vayavo Avraham Lispod L’Sarah V’livekotah. Abraham first mourned for Sarah and then began to cry for her. Only after he cries for Sarah can Abraham rise up from beside her to arrange for her burial. I see these stages of grief very often within families who have suffered a death. I often tell people that if you are not hurting, you may not have begun to grieve yet. I am trying to reassure people that it is ok to cry out out and feel pain, so that the people around us and who love us can respond.
  • In Genesis 29, God takes notice of tears of joy and love. Shortly after that incredible dream Jacob had of a ramp or a ladder from the ground to the heavens with angels ascending and descending upon it, Jacob travels to a well where he swoons over a beautiful shepherdess named Rachel. Jacob is so taken with her that one might say he believes Rachel is one of God’s angels, sent to him with the message that he was capable of finding love. In this story, after their very first kiss, Jacob begins to cry, showing all who could see him his tears of joy and exaltation.
  • In Genesis 45 God sees tears of reconciliation. In this chapter, we witness genuine, heartfelt, contrition from Joseph’s brothers who betrayed him as a child. When Joseph sees this, he reveals his identity to his siblings and earnestly asks after the welfare of their father. But that leaves out an important detail. It is when Joseph could no longer control himself, and he orders all of his attendants to step out of the room except him and his brothers. It seems apparent that Joseph wanted privacy for the tears he was about to shed. But Torah tells us that Joseph’s sobbing during his reconciliation with his brothers was loud enough for all of Egypt to hear.

I have to say: I truly relate to Joseph’s vivid example in the Torah. His cry is like most of the ones I experienced last year. It didn’t care where I was standing, and it came about suddenly. It was a cry for time wasted holding onto past hurts and insults. It was a cry because nothing ever stays the same, or a cry because I heard such terrible news I didn’t know what else to do.

A story. This story doesn’t take place in the Torah and it doesn’t happen in a temple. It is a true story that happened in a store called Whole Foods about 2 and 1/2 years ago. In a post written by Deborah Greene, 10 months after a cry that changed her life forever, she wrote:

Dear Strangers, I remember you. Ten months ago, when my cellphone rang with news of my father’s death, you were walking into Whole Foods to do your shopping, just as I had been only minutes before you. But I’d already abandoned my cart full of groceries and I stood in the entryway of the store. My brother was on the other end of the line. He was telling me my father was dead, that he had taken his own life early that morning and through his sobs, I remember he kept saying, “I’m sorry, Deborah, I’m so sorry.” I can’t imagine how it must have felt for him to make that call.

 After I hung up, I started to cry and scream as my whole body trembled. This just couldn’t be true. It couldn’t be happening. Only moments before, I had been going about my errands on a normal Monday morning. Only moments before, my life had felt intact. Overwhelmed with emotions, I fell to the floor, my knees buckling under the weight of what I had just learned. And you, kind strangers, you were there.

 You could have kept on walking, ignoring my cries, but you didn’t. You could have simply stopped and stared at my primal display of pain, but you didn’t. No, instead you surrounded me as I yelled through my sobs, “My father killed himself. He killed himself. He’s dead.” And the question that has plagued me since that moment came to my lips in a scream, “Why?” I must have asked it over and over and over again.

 I remember in that haze of emotions, one of you asked for my phone and who you should call. What was my password? You needed my husband’s name as you searched through my contacts. I remember that I could hear your words as you tried to reach him, leaving an urgent message… I recall hearing you discuss among yourselves who would drive me home in my car and who would follow that person to bring them back to the store. You didn’t even know one another, but it didn’t matter. You encountered me, a stranger, in the worst moment of my life and you coalesced around me with common purpose, to help.

 I remember one of you asking if you could pray for me and for my father. I must have said yes, and I recall now that Christian prayer being offered up to Jesus for my Jewish father and me, and it still both brings tears to my eyes and makes me smile….And in my fog, I told you that I had a friend, Pam, who worked at Whole Foods and one of you went in search of her and, thankfully, she was there that morning and you brought her to me. I remember the relief I felt at seeing her face, familiar and warm. She took me to the back, comforting and caring for me so lovingly until my husband could get to me. And I even recall as I sat with her, one of you sent back a gift card to Whole Foods; though you didn’t know me, you wanted to offer a little something to let me know that you would be thinking of me and holding me and my family in your thoughts and prayers. That gift card helped to feed my family, when the idea of cooking was so far beyond my emotional reach.

 I never saw you after that. But I know this to be true, if it were not for all of you, I might have simply gotten in the car and tried to drive myself home. I wasn’t thinking straight, if I was thinking at all. If it were not for you, I don’t know what I would have done in those first raw moments of overwhelming shock, anguish and grief. But I thank God every day that I didn’t have to find out. Your kindness, your compassion, your willingness to help a stranger in need have stayed with me until this day. And no matter how many times my mind takes me back to that horrible life-altering moment, it is not all darkness.

 Why? Because you reached out to help, you offered a ray of light in the bleakest moment I’ve ever endured. You may not remember it. You may not remember me. But I will never, ever forget you. And though you may never know it, I give thanks for your presence and humanity, each and every day.

 (Deborah Greene, “An open letter to the Whole Foods shoppers who consoled me when I learned of my dad’s suicide,” Washington Post, March 9, 2016)

It is such a moving story, to read that a community of strangers in a grocery store became an Anshe Chesed, a people of loving kindness. The woman who wrote that beautiful tribute to fellow shoppers in Whole Foods- is a friend of mine. Deborah Greene is married to my lifelong friend Rabbi Fred Greene of Congregation Har Hashem in Boulder, CO. Since that cry in Whole Foods when she learned about her dad’s suicide, I have been so moved to see how she, as a writer, as a mother and as an activist for mental health and suicide awareness, she has touched millions of families through her writing, raising money and her public advocacy.

I called Deb last week and asked her if I could tell you her story and she assented. But she also told me something else you should know. It is this: more than two years after the cry that shook the earth beneath her, long after strangers responded to her with such decency and kindness, Deborah can’t bring herself into her own temple for Rosh Hashanah. It is just too painful to speak these words and perform these rites. She feels that at this time, like a person for whom “God sits across a great chasm.”

On this Rosh Hashanah, I am praying for healing for Deborah and for those who are hurting right now in this temple and down the street in Whole Foods. I don’t know exactly who they are. But neither did the people around Deborah. They could have walked right by her. They had places to go and items to find. But the community around her did what our temple tries to do. They held her. They protected her. And they helped her find her way home.

Now you may hear her story and say to yourself, “I am not a crier. And even if I was, I don’t think I’d cry in temple or in Whole Foods.” To this, I would say, That is fine. This story I am sharing on Rosh Hashanah evening was never about telling any of us that we must cry. But I do beg of you the following: in the New Year ahead, please please listen for the cries of others. Attend your ears to know that someone is hurting and you can help. Someone may be questioning whether teshuvah is even possible or whether life is worth living, and we can respond: if only with a gentle offer of an embrace or a hand on their shoulder to let them know you are present.

Don’t wait for God to respond. Be God’s response. Remember that one of the most important things God ever did for the Israelites was to listen for our cries and respond to the pain we felt in Egypt. We were able to cry and know God would be there for us. Be God’s response, I ask you. When the shofar is blown this holiday make a heartfelt pledge meant to last from generation to generation. Make a pledge to look around you in all your surroundings, so that even the person shopping next to you in the grocery store can feel accepted and safe and whole. Make a pledge so that everyone in this temple and in our Jewish community, no matter you are, you can say tekiah, I am here…shevarim, I am broken, and teruah, one day I will put myself together again.