There is a reason why people who cry are called cry-babies. Crying doesn’t make sense and we assume children are most prone to irrationality. Children do things like crying over spilled milk, which everyone knows is not so rational, because what is crying going to help? The milk is gone no matter how sorry you are, and how much you wish it wasn’t.
The Talmud tells us that someone who hears crying at night will cry along , because night is a time to cry— in fact, the very word, Layla has the same letters as the word yelala, which is a moan or a cry.
Darkness does seem to awaken the softer, more vulnerable part of ourselves, the one that is more in touch with our feelings. The crash of bright sunlight overpowers any whisper of doubt, but the darkness of night drapes a veil over our eyes— and kills sight’s supreme confidence in its power to know reality. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in the darkness, pictures aren’t worth much.
BUT WHY IS DARKNESS CONDUCIVE TO CRYING?
Probably one of the most central—and perplexing– human assumptions, is that the world is a good place. We see this, for example, in our desire to shield our children from knowing about evil. We don’t want our children to read scary books; we try to hush up the real-life horror stories that abound. Since we value honesty in parenting, why are we covering up the truth for our kids? Is the world a good place or isn’t it?
Certainly if you were just measuring quantity, evil would win hands down. If we put all the moments of evil—the wanton cruelty, the betrayals, the deceit, the torture, the racks and the screw—on one side of the scale, and all the acts of benevolence, kindness, caring and love on the other side—would the moments of goodness really carry more weight? Echoing through the pain filled corridors of human history is a loud, resounding no.
And yet, despite this, like ridiculously immature optimists—we human beings continue to hang on for dear life to the miniscule numbers of chicken-soup-for-the-soul- moments and are always shocked anew when faced with evil, always horrified yet again. Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, we do believe in goodness. We aren’t lying to the child by shielding him from bad; the opposite is true. Destroying a child’s innocent faith in goodness seems so obscene because seeing the world as evil appears to us as the bigger lie.
When we read about the horror of an abused and neglected child that no longer cries, because his hope and belief in goodness has been smashed to smithereens, we wish we could show this child that he is wrong, that the world is indeed a kind and warm place. Our belief in good is ridiculously indefatigable. No matter what happens– like the punching doll who is weighted at the bottom—we keep bouncing back up with a new plan, a new way to hold on to the balloon.
THE VOICE IN THE DARK
But when night falls, in the darkness, it’s hard to reinterpret the pain. Slapped in the face with reality, our child-like optimism, cries out with the pain of betrayal. I did think you promised me a rose garden! The dissonance between our vision of a good world and the cold, hard reality, leaves us shattered. Eichah? How is this possible? How could everything beautiful, pure and honest have been twisted into ugliness? Night is where we meet that utter bewilderment; it’s not just the thorns, it’s the roses that have been revealed as a cheap mask pulled over a putrid reality. We cry because we are at a loss to make sense out of a world of darkness.
Crying is an expression of utter confusion. The Hebrew word bechi, comes from the same word as navoch, confused. A rational world view can always be described in words, but when we cry, our vocal chords do not form words. We cry when our confusion overwhelms us. We cannot utter one coherent sound. All that comes out of our mouths—our mouths whose entire purpose is to articulate and define—are sounds that make no sense.
The Maharal says that choshech, darkness, derives from the word withheld as in ‘you did not withhold (chasachta) your son from me”. Darkness withholds. It holds back the fullness and brightness of our day-time, cheery consciousness and leaves in its place a gaping lack. Darkness knocks us off our I-can-handle-it pedestal and sends us reeling upside down into the black hole of impossibility.
But lack is not just nothingness, it is also a space cleared for something new. From our mouths come confusion, and from our eyes, water. As we cry, water floods our eyes, spills out on to our cheeks and splatters into our lives.
Water washes away the old to make way for the new. The ugliness of the world was washed away with the Flood, the false power of the Egyptians was washed away in the Red Sea, former status is washed away in the mikva. Tears wash our eyes– those champions of daytime surety– and prepare us to see a new reality. Interestingly, women, the gemora tells us, have a special affinity to tears.
Women, and the female force–because of her receptive qualities–are often referred to in the sources as both he’eder (lack) and darkness. Though woman is she who births the fullness of life into the world, that new life always starts with a lack. In the biological woman, the endless flow between emptiness and fullness, between darkness and light, between death and life, plays out in real time. The word for womb, rechem, is the root of the word rachamim, mercy. And what is more merciful than opening a space for change and growth to occur? Loss and gain, become within her, two sides of the same coin.
IN A DIFFERENT VOICE
When the sun shines brightly, a mother confronted with her child’s fear of lions, tigers and bears– and their urban equivalents– offers practical advice: “You’re scared? How about we sign you up for a self- defense course?” In the day time, we think about putting better locks on the doors and fortifying our fortresses. But night is a time for a different kind of truth.
At night, the scared child who turns to his mother for comfort—hears something entirely different. Child cries out in fear—Lions! Tigers! Bears!–and Mother strokes her child’s cheek and whispers to him, “Its Ok. Go back to sleep. Mommy is here. It’s all going to be OK. “
Really? It’s all OK? Does this mother have some inside information that the rest of us don’t have? There are murderers, robbers and torturers out there. Life is scary and painful. People we love die and then are gone. Dreams we cherished are ripped to shreds. Enemies destroy and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put things together again. In fact, every day of the year, evil triumphs– whether we like it or not. And, sadly, all the mother love in the world is not much protection against this tsunami of evil. How can she say it’s all OK?
But in the middle of the night, in that lonely, dark, and empty place, the mother murmuring words of comfort to her child is telling the truth. Not the truth of the day but the truth of the night. Interestingly, the word aveilus, (mourning), shares a root with the word aval, ( but) ; on this combination rests this truth of the night.
Why do we mourn? Because, yes, the person is dead, but there will be techiyas hameisim, yes, there is pain, but there will come a day when all tears will be wiped from our faces, yes, there is evil, but justice and good will always triumph. Never is evil final, always, there is a way back. Aveilus reaffirms that it’s never over until it’s over, and it’s never ever over.
NO ROOM FOR WHY
In a world without that ‘but’—which is a world without G-d– crying is embarrassing. Just like real men don’t eat quiche, real adults don’t cry. Adults deal with life, they take action, they move on. If the milk will never spring back into the bottle, if the person will never come back to life, crying is silly (unless tears are just a physiological reaction to pain or loss, like laughing when something tickles you–which is embarrassing as well). If you cry, a friend may hear you out, out of empathy, but you will both wish for you to stop crying because what’s over is over, what’s dead is dead and what’s gone is gone. Crying is a waste of time.
Without G-d in the picture there is nothing to question. Why do good people suffer? Because that’s the way the cookie crumbles, my friend. Would you like a scientific explanation of why earthquakes and tsunamis occur? An in depth psychological evaluation of the influences of nature and nurture in producing a serial killer? Without G-d in the picture, the moments of goodness are the aberration, not the moments of evil. There is no “but”. Pick yourself up and move on.
But, we, the Jewish people, woman-like, spurn the macho myth. We are not afraid to cry. In fact, we have been crying for generations. Jews reject the lie in pop philosophy’s popular panacea: ‘it is what it is’. ‘It’, the pain and suffering, the distortion that abounds, is not what it is. Alot Hashachar , the rise of the morning sun, translated literally is Alot Hashachor, the rising of the deepest black. Darkness precedes the breaking of the dawn. Tears of pain will bring to tears of joy.
If crying is about confusion, laughter is about being overwhelmed with the sudden clarity that what looked like destruction was really salvation. Tears are close to the surface in women, and it is also ‘she who will laugh at the very last day’. Paradoxically, it is to those who lack, to those who cry, to whom the fullness will one day come.
This Tisha B’av, may the tears of Yirmiyahyu, “eini, eini yordah mayim, my eyes, my eyes, pour out tears”, wash away the darkness and grant our eyes the final vision of Yeshayahu: “ki ayin bayin yireh es shuv hashem l’tzion—with their own eyes they will see the return of Hashem to Zion”.
Miriam Kosman is a lecturer for Nefesh Yehudi, an outreach organization that teaches Torah to thousands of Israeli university students. Her groundbreaking new book, Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism, presents the paradigm on which these columns are based. Much of this article is based on the writer’s understanding of Rav Moshe Shapiro shlita’s Torah. To see more of her writing, visit, miriamkosman.com