Excerpted from Chapters 1, 10, and 11 of Reclaiming Rosh Hashanah: The Dance of Tears (forthcoming, Integral Publishers)
Summary: In this essay, excerpted from Marc Gafni’s forthcoming publication Reclaiming Rosh Hashanah: The Dance of Tears, we encounter biblical myth character Rachel and her three levels of tears of transformation: human empathy for the suffering of other human beings, human empathy for the pain of God, and empathy of God for man. These three strands of Rachel’s tears form “a sacred circle of nondual love,” according to Marc in this passage. Furthermore, these tears of redemption express a core idea in Hebrew wisdom: “The human being, by engaging the Rachel archetype and entering into the pain of the Shechina in exile, can—through his tears—realize his ontic identity with the Shechina herself, and in this very realization, be aroused to great compassion and achieve redemption.” This excerpt introduces the mystical techniques of the crying of transformation and the transformation of crying. It is by accessing these tears that we offer redemption for a crying God.
In order to fully appreciate the nature of Rosh Hashanah theatre and the dance of tears, it is necessary to point out the implicit distinction between this biblical form of holy day theatre and the concept of theatre inherited by western civilization from ancient Greece. In classical Greek theatre, the operative principle was Aristotle’s understanding of catharsis. Catharsis for Aristotle meant the purging of the emotions. The spectator was able to achieve emotional release by identifying with the characters in the drama, and the release was sanitized because, in the final analysis, the identification between the spectator and the actor remained limited. In the holy day theatre, however, we are commanded not only to intellectually understand, but to reenact, to experience in the depths of our physical and psychological selves, in our total being, processes of spiritual growth and transformation. In the Biblical theatre of Rosh Hashanah or Seder, there are no spectators. Indeed we are the actors and actresses.
The fourth character in the Reclaiming Rosh Hashanah: Dance of Tears drama is Rachel. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the reading of the Haftorah, drawn from the prophets, is from Jeremiah 31. The climax of the text is a dialogue of tears between Rachel and God: ‘“A voice was heard on high, plaintive weeping – Rachel is crying for her children, she refuses to be comforted. God responds, “Hold back your voice from crying and your eyes from tears … your children will return to their borders.” Rachel in this story and others is associated with tears which provoke redemption. In kabbalistic literature, Rachel is a symbol for the Shechina, the feminine goddess divine. According to these Kabbalists, when we say “the King” in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, we are actually referring to the Shechina principle. The story of Rachel is then the story of the crying of the Shechina. The crying of God. God is the fifth character in the Rosh Hashanah drama.
Rachel cries tears of empathy on three distinct levels. The first level expressed by Rachel crying for her children is human empathy for the suffering of other human beings. The second level, expressed powerfully by Kalonymous Kalman Schapira of Piacezna, is human empathy for the pain of God. These are the tears of Rachel below. The third level is the empathy of God for man. God cries for the suffering of man. These are the tears of Rachel above. Taken together, all three strands form a sacred circle of nondual love. Just as God reaches beyond Herself to feel our pain, so we must stretch to the limit and beyond to feel the pain of God. We do so through empathy. We meet God in the pain of the world. We meet God by opening ourselves up to Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, Sudan, and the list goes on. We meet God by opening ourselves up to the suffering of those who are closest to us. And we meet God by widening our circle of caring beyond merely our immediate family and most intimate friends. Rosh Hashanah is about being willing to shatter the narrow confines of our individual person and even the narrow confines of our peculiar nation. On Rosh Hashanah, we merge with God. We not only pray to the King, God in second person. We become the King, God in first person. God, universal God of the whole world. We open ourselves up to feel the pain of the world in order to be powerfully motivated to heal and repair the world, which is identical to the healing and repair of God.
The crying of pain needs to become the crying of healing.
It’s not easy to conceive of a crying God. Many of us are used to philosophical teachings which speak of God’s infinity only in terms of the infinity of power otherness. The question come to our lips is the question with which we began: How could we believe in a crying God? The answer is, at least for this author, eloquently simple: How could I believe in a God who doesn’t cry?
The Transformation of Tears
This is the deep structure of Rachel crying: Rachel cries for her children—radical empathy of the mother. Her tears arouse divine tears. They transform Rachel into the Shechina goddess divine. Rachel becomes the Shechina—the King bound in chains, yearning to be redeemed. At the same time, Rachel remains fully human, frail, and vulnerable. When human vulnerability merges with divine vulnerability—when divine and human tears realize their higher identity—those tears arouse redemption. At that point, the tears of pain and longing and radical empathy at the edge of fulfillment are transformed into tears of joy; these are the tears of the people which are recorded in that same chapter in Jeremiah read on Rosh Hashanah: “In crying they will come.” The tears of redemption express the joy and ecstasy of a realized people. When the Master of Chabad’s followers claim that their teacher is of the “nature and quality of Ein Sof,” they are expressing a core idea in Hebrew wisdom: the human being, by engaging the Rachel archetype and entering into the pain of the Shechina in exile, can—through his tears—realize his ontic identity with the Shechina herself, and in this very realization, be aroused to great compassion and achieve redemption.
In the great story of the Hassidic Master of Chabad, the Lubavicher Rebbe, he declared himself the Messiah. An audacious and humble pronouncement. His Hassidim declare that he is Atzmut Umahut Ein Sof. He is merged with, he participates in, God. The two are not separate, but inextricably related. When the rebbe realized his nondual identity with the divine—the essential message of the mystics in every spiritual system throughout history—the pain was overbearing. Not only did the joy of the world course through the rebbe, but its infinite suffering as well. So what choice is there, in the great tradition of the Bodhisattva, as his tears merge with divine tears? Of course, he demands from himself and from God—Messiah now!
Crying of Transformation
The crying of transformation will help us understand deeper levels in the crying of redemption of Rachel and in the crying of the people in Jeremiah 31. These forms of tears have an implicit subtext which views crying as an agent of transformation. In this chapter, we will deepen our intuitive understanding of the mystical techniques of the crying of transformation and the transformation of crying, both elements of Rachel crying as they appear in the tradition of Hebrew wisdom.
Crying of transformation is about rebirth, cleansing the eyes of their old furnishings to allow for new and higher perception. Crying seeks the fostering of new opening, creating access to heretofore hidden sacred spaces. Crying is the mechanism for that opening and transformation. Transformation is one of the most important demarcating characteristics of human beings. Human beings transform; animals don’t. Animals are governed by a linear pattern of instinct. Human beings have the possibility of zig-zagging, of rising and falling, and most importantly, human beings have the ability to transform themselves, to choose to be different tomorrow from how they are today and how they were yesterday. It is this ability which is the homo imago dei in the human being. It is this possibility which affirms hope against despair.
Migratory birds can’t change plans. Migratory birds that winter in Alabama can’t decide, “Maybe this year there’s a better deal on Delta; we’ll winter this year in Florida.” Human beings can change their minds and also their hearts; human beings can change direction. The most important Jewish spiritual idea is that of Teshuvah, the ever-present possibility of healing and transformation. It is premised on the belief in the human ability to transcend our default nature and evolve to a higher and deeper way of being. Indeed, in biblical consciousness, we would be more likely termed “human becomings” than human beings. In the book of Genesis, the difference between those characters who represent emergence of the covenantal moment and those characters who are left behind is that the covenantal characters undergo transformation. The other characters serve as literary foils who are static, who never change.
The transformation effected through crying is effected in two primary ways, often both at the same time. Throughout our discussion of crying of transformation, we will move back and forth between these two models.
The first model of crying might be best illustrated with a graphic physical image. When a tree wants to grow, it needs to first shed its old skin, its bark. The removal of the bark is accompanied by tears in the form of sap. The sap flowing from the tree is the tree crying as part of its process of growth. Of course, to the best of our knowledge, trees do not really cry. My only point is that, in order for us to grow, we need to shed our old skin, and like trees, the shedding our old skin is connected to crying. The difference, however, is critical. In human beings, crying is not the result, but the very mechanism for shedding the layers of consciousness that are no longer appropriate or useful. Crying cleanses. Tears cleanse the eye of particles that get caught. Don’t you remember your parents telling you when something was caught in your eye to blink really heard so that tears would wash out your eyes? Tears wash our souls and allow us to purify ourselves in order to open our eyes to deeper perception, wisdom, and joy. Nachman of Bratzlav writes, “The tears are part of vision…and therefore through crying of tears, we merit to expel that part of vision which tended after the superficial perception of this world.”1
Tears restore our ability to glimpse things as they really are. Tears restore our perspective. We tend to too strongly identify with the transient realities of work, socioeconomic class, superficial relationships, and level of body fat. When we cry, it clears our vision, reworks our inner balance, and moves us towards higher integration, thus allowing us to see things more clearly.
Through the act of crying, one sheds the external skin, one sheds the lust and superficial domination of the physical, thereby allowing one to touch a deeper and holier sensuality and integrate it into the larger personality.
The second notion of crying of transformation is that crying touches something very deep inside of us, an internal lever or spring of some sort that nothing else is able to touch. That deep inner soul place is the source of all transformation. In this second understanding of crying of transformation, crying is something of a bypass mechanism. It bypasses all of our defense systems: all of our rationalization, all the walls we have put up to make sure that we don’t get hurt in the world. It bypasses all of our indifference, all of our postures and false masks, and it touches the divine essence that is our truest self. It is through that innermost place of pure divine that we can affect any and all transformation. The second understanding teaches us that while all of nature may be deterministic, while a flatland materialism may be the outer face of reality, a deeper read of human development and history tells us unequivocally that there is a second force operating both in history and in the human personality. That force is the spirit of G-d. Crying allows me to bypass the deterministic grid of the human persona and touch that divine core. According to the Hebrew mystics, divinity by its very definition is not static. Divinity is dynamic, transformative. As opposed to Maimonides, who adopts an Aristotelian understanding of an immutable and unchanging reality to be the very definition of God, the Kabbalists experienced the essence of G-d as ultimately dynamic. This is so simply because according to the Kabbalists, perfection which does not include the dimension of perfecting and growth is fundamentally flawed. Thus, in the gorgeous paradoxical logic of the Kabbalists, perfection must be an evolving dynamic and not a stagnant stasis. This is what Abraham Kuk explicitly terms the evolutionary enlightenment of God.
It is in this sense that crying is a vital mystical technique for the Kabbalists, for it is precisely crying that bypasses the deterministic human mechanisms, touching the divine core of the human being and all of reality, which is dynamic evolving and transforming. Therefore, by touching and participating in the divine, we are able to access that divine power of transformation in our own lives.2
1. (Hebrew 9) section on crying subsection #5,4.
2. Crying as a mystical technique, see Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, pages 75-88 and 197-199. Idel points out that crying serves two major purposes as a technique. The first is to apprehend visions of G-d. The second is to reveal secrets. The second kind of crying discussed by Idel is called crying of theurgy.