Muswell Hill Synagogue
Shelach Korach & Chukat 5/6 & 12/13 July 2024 9.05pm & 9.00pm 10.23pm & 10.16pm

Rosh Hashana Day 1 Sermon – The Importance of Crying

I remember well Rosh Hashana in my days at Yeshiva. They were stressful and nervous occasions. Of course it was a chag. But up at about 6.30am to pray – and for someone who finds getting up earlier difficult it was torture – and then finished by well after 1pm. The pressure of thinking about God as judge and how I personally had acted over the last year. My first yeshiva was one where many who learned there had become religious. I suppose I was trying to hold on to a sense of being normal and anchored – but many pupils were going on journeys. And I remember one or two guys who I knew, crying at some point over the Rosh Hashana day, most often through the Additional service Amidah, the silent prayer. And I could not relate to that – why were they crying, why was I not crying. What did this crying mean?

Crying of course often feels like a sign of weakness. We cry, we feel guilty that we are burden on others, we feel that something is wrong and we are ashamed about that.

And maybe Rosh Hashana is a day we can reflect on the way crying can by good, can be healthy, and can come from the depths of who we are. Of course crying can be a way of mourning. We lose a relative. We lose something precious to us. We lose a relationship. We cry and the crying is part of the mourning process. In the work of Jewish law known as the Shulchan Aruch there is a section that deals with the laws of Mourning, or Avelut – and towards the end it describes that one should not mourn too much. Here are its words:

‘One should not grieve excessively for the dead…. save that three days [are designated] for weeping, seven for lamenting, thirty [to abstain from] cutting the hair and wearing laundried garments’

Now this is not totally descriptive – but it of course links crying to mourning, as many of us will have experienced. That crying is one of the deep pain of loss, drawn out of longing for one who cannot be seen and experienced again.


There is another crying though, which may be linked to that of mourning. I met a friend recently – yes I have friends! – who I spent time in yeshiva with. I have not seen much of him since then, 15 years ago, but I had reason to meet up with him. We talked together about the benefit and importance of psychotherapy and how it had helped each of us – it was a wonderful conversation. We talked about those moments when something rises up from the unconscious to the conscious and explodes out into the room between you and the therapist. The moment when you understand why you can sometimes be depressed, sensitive and vulnerable. And in those moments there often are tears. And the crying is a one of self realisation. Yes it maybe tinged with mourning – if I had known or thought that earlier, maybe I could have done this or that. It may be tinged with the sadness of realisation that some relationships just will not go where you want them to – and that some things are just out of your control. But the crying also can be a cathartic cry or a return to the self, and a return to who you are, where all the layers you build in life are peeled away and all that is left is the naked self.

At the recent Chief Rabbi’s conference, I was sitting through the talk by one of the guest Rabbis and wasn’t really connecting to what he was saying – it wasn’t delivered well, the Rabbi found English difficult – not the highlight of the conference. But then the Rabbi talked about the prohibition to cry

on Shabbat and Yom Tov. Yes, that exists. One should ideally not cry on Shabbat as it is a day of pleasure, not sadness. But he then looked at crying on Rosh Hashana – should one be allowed to cry on Rosh Hashana. After all it is a festive day, it is a Yom Tov and has similar laws to other Yamim Tovim. In fact whereas on Shabbat we have a mitzvah of Oneg, pleasure and not necessarily simcha, joy – on Yom Tov we have a mitzvah of simcha. So surely it would be difficult to allow crying on Rosh Hashana.

There is actually a Biblical precedent to this as well. As we know after the sacking of the First Temple in 587BCE, over 2600 years ago, the Jewish people were in the main exiled to the centres of the Babylonian Empire. A few decades later, Persian leadership allowed a return – although a minority of the Jewish community took up the offer and returned. Under the leadership of Ezra and Nechemia, they began to rebuild. In the Book of Nechemia, in chapter 8, we are told of a ceremony where Ezra reads a Torah scroll to the gathered people in Jerusalem – and the people begin to cry. They fear that they did not keep all that was in the Torah beforehand and cry through a deep sorrowful guilt. But Nechemia then calls out to the gathered congregation to stop crying – and this took place on Tishrei 1st – Rosh Hashana. And so from this biblical story we see a root to the approach that one does not cry on Rosh Hashana. In yeshiva we would call this a ‘Litvishe’ approach – or a Lithuanian approach which champions intellectual and religious legal rigour – but not raw emotion.

The great Rav Soloveitchik told of his father, who was standing on the Bimah about to the read the notes for the shofar blower, who was a Chabad Chasid, a Chasid of Lubavitch. The Chasid began to weep – Rav Soloveitchik’s father turned to him and asked – Do you weep when you take a lulav? Why then do you weep when you blow the shofar – are not both commandments of God.

The Litvishe approach is grounded, less emotional although not given over to excess. But in the Chasid in this story, we see another approach, one that ties together the shofar specifically with the need to cry. In fact Rav Soloveitchik writes that:

‘Man’s weeping on Rosh Hashana according to this doctrine, is the weeping of the soul that longs for its origin, for the rock from whence it was hewn’

In fact the famous mystic the Ari, the 16th century Rabbi, Isaac Luria, said that it was good to cry on Rosh Hashana. He wrote very little – but in the writings of one his most famous pupils, Chaim Vital, it states that he often cried abundantly on Rosh Hashana.

A more recent, Sephardi authority, Rav Ovadia Yosef, who died recently in Israel differentiated between the day itself, which we should enjoy and not make ourselves cry; and the prayers of the day in which we may cry and that is OK.

What I found fascinating was the work of an American academic psychologist and therapist Judith Kay Nelson. She looked into the nature of crying in the therapy room. It was assumed in therapy that crying was a good thing. But is there more to it than that. And so Nelson used what is called attachment theory and the work of the famous expert in child development John Bowlby. A baby cries first out of protest when it does not get its needs met by mother immediately. After a while of not having those needs met, the next stage will be a cry of despair – followed by a stage of detachment where there is no crying anymore. It just doesn’t work. So, for adults – when someone suffers a loss, there is an initial cry of protest – it can’t be, it isn’t so – that didn’t happen. The ideal is to move from this protest which is not rooted in reality, to a cry of despair which accepts that something traumatic has indeed happened in the past, and that in the hear and now I can now deal with it and move on in my life with it. For Nelson, the therapist will be able to move a client from a protesting, attacking cry – to one that accepts out of despair. Crying is a sign that the therapist is helping.

And so on Rosh Hashana, crying tears of despair can be a sign that we are responding to the seriousness and depth of the day. These tears of despair that therapy brings. The tears that self realisation of any sort brings –come from a deep place. They come from one’s essence. But it is possible that after them comes relief and even joy. There is a joy of realisation. There is a joy of feeling different about your past and about the realisation of the relationships you have made. There is a joy that you are not any more hostage to certain ways of thinking about yourself. There is a joy that you can move on. There is a joy that you no longer shackled by the shame of certain experiences and ways of thinking.

And so crying, at the sound of the shofar. Crying in prayer on Rosh Hashana. These are not just appropriate responses – they are cathartic helpful responses. Crying isn’t something to be ashamed of – it is something so central to being human. It is the sign that one is moving beyond and moving forward.

One final thing. With Nelson’s paradigm of attachment theory, the cry of despair as she calls it, where one moves on in dealing with something, happens while with the therapist and often after the intervention of the therapist. Nelson talks about a case where a therapist brings to the room a picture of the client as a little girl in a ballet dress – and for the first time, for whatever reason, this makes the client cry. Something breaks inside her. I think a lot about this when I officiate at funerals. Often mourners will apologise before the funeral that they or a relative may cry during the ceremony. To me, the crying is a deep sign of health, and if by my intervention through my eulogy I can allow the mourner or mourners to cry, I feel that I have done my job properly.

But how does this work on Rosh Hashanah. We all come as people, as individuals, as worshippers. There is no therapist here. We aren’t spilling out our tears one to one with someone dear to us. It would seem here that we are on our own. I wonder though, if the shofar here is the substitute and is the symbol of intervention that shakes us up, that makes us reflect. It’s sound is a wailing, a soulful wailing in itself. We blow in part to remember the crying of the mother of the warrior Sisera. Even more than this we blow two types of notes between the tekiyah blasts. One we call Shevarim. One we call Teruah. Sometimes we blow a shevarim between the tekiyah notes, and sometimes we blow a teruah. When we blow a shevarim and teruah together between the tekiyah blasts, the question is why that order – why not blow tekiyah teruah shevarim tekiyah. What is the rationale for what we do? The Talmud answers this and says that when something terrible happens to someone, first they will cry in a long groaning manner – and then they will cry in a more staccato manner.

Maybe! Maybe not! But what it does offer us here – and this is an amazing, beautiful point – is that the shofar is a medium for crying. It is crying itself – it is the intervention of the therapist, or of the Rabbi, or of the close one. It is the intervention that may make us cry.

And what we cannot also forget is that we are here all together as a people. We are all here to support each other and be there for each other as a community, at times of joy as well as times of sadness. We as a community, on Rosh Hashana, can internalise the fact that crying can be healing and beautiful while we as a community stand together in front of God, on Rosh Hashana.