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A Time to Weep

May 9, 2009 | by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

We avoid pictures from the Holocaust because we don't want to cry. But only tears open all the gates of heaven.

The camera caught a "street scene" that typified war-torn Poland. It captured the irreversible alteration of the life of a child and of the lives of the young men surrounding him.

The boy is about six years old, standing in his little coat and cap, his arms raised in a gesture of surrender as the Nazi soldiers point their weapons at his head.

The contrast between his eyes, in which all hope has been extinguished, and those of his captors, who looked like their next stop would be a movie or a coffee, is imprinted in my memory.

I saw that photo when I myself was a child and it seems it has been a part of my life from as long as I was aware that the world didn't begin with me. I found myself re-examining the picture again and again. The years never dulled the ache that it evoked, nor the simultaneous repulsion that would lead me to close the book.

This was one of many photos from the Holocaust, in which the contrast between death and life were reduced to almost formulaic horror. I was haunted by the images of people I will never know, but who seemed to me, nonetheless, so awfully recognizable.


Reflected in the little boy's eyes is the image of the approaching angel of death. And yet, to me, the look in the eyes of the men surrounding him is far more horrifying. They don't care; they could be doing anything. It's their normalcy that is far more shocking than the child's terror.

My own desire to let my eyes and those of the anonymous little boy meet is not consistent. I want to, yet I avoid it. The craving for bright blue skies, familiar tastes and textures, and most of all the warmth of laughter is the motivating factor for my avoiding his gaze.

It's their look of normalcy of the Nazis that is far more shocking than the child's terror.

I want to continue avoiding the permanency of the dread that redefined a pair of eyes that could not have seen the world for more than six years. His presence may invade my life too harshly, and make my laughter sound tinny and my desire for pleasure feel crass. Most of all, I don't want to cry.

Crying is not always a bad thing, however. The Zohar tells us "the sorrow and misery that brings tears to our eyes open all the gates. Those who are appointed to close them, [the angels created by our human failures,] open the gates wide, and bring the tears before the Holy King."

Who closes the gates? We do! Our eyes are dry. We remain heartless and self-protective. We are afraid of facing life itself.

Life, even on the simplest biological level, is at least partially defined by growth. There are many obstacles that obstruct our movement towards wherever our journey takes us, the most serious one being ourselves. Our ponderous egos and insatiable desires seem to block us at every corner. There is no Satan to accuse us, or devil to send us to hell; our stunted growth is its own accusation. We sentence ourselves to the worst condemnation of all, mind-numbing, tedious mediocrity.


In His mercy, God created a world in which He presents us with gates. What this means is the many opportunities to re-open doors that we closed through choice or habit. What happens all too often is, however, that what we feel is that we are not faced with a gate, but with a wall.

We want to be alive. We know that the amputation of our hearts, of our willingness to feel, dooms us to being only half alive. We are trapped by thousands of choices creating patterns of behavior that feel like steel manacles. The only key that will open the gates under all circumstances is the key of tears.

Tears of self-pity are not going to do it.

Tears of self-pity are not going to do it. They paralyze our will, and drown our resolve in self-indulgent bathos. What kind of tears does initiate real breakthroughs? The kind of tears that come to my eyes, even though I try to blink them back, when I see the photo of the little boy again.

These are tears that break the barrier of the limitations of my own ego and the smallness of my life.

Bereavement and grief can come from one of two places. One is mourning the physical absence of someone beloved. The other kind of mourning is deeper; it is mourning the loss of goodness not only in our own lives, but also in the world as a whole.

The first sort of mourning invariably leads towards resolution and consolation. As time goes on the sharpness of the loss is dulled by the constant flow of new events, and inevitably the dead are, to a large degree, forgotten. However what is not forgotten is life.

When what we are mourning is not death, but life, than there is no real comfort. It is for this reason that the image of the little boy -- who reminds us of the 1 million children killed in the Holocaust and whose images the camera did not catch -- is so indelibly etched in my mind.

But if I am to remain honest, I must broaden my vision. The obscene normalcy of the faces of the Germans who held their weapons to his head is an insult to life itself. They are part of the picture. As long as we tolerate that sort of insult, the gates are closed too easily. We have to retain awareness of how little room there is for insensitivity to life itself.

How can we revive ourselves without retreating in fear to the safe places that we construct in order to hide? Let us examine how the Torah responds to our search for emotional integrity.


One medieval Spain's great thinkers, Rabbi Bachya, made a piercingly astute observation in his Torah commentary. He quotes the Talmud that tells us that prayer parallels the ancient sacrificial offerings. There is, however, one crucial difference. When we pray, we offer ourselves.

Part of the ritual of sacrificial offering required pouring out water on the altar. This was known as nissuch ha-mayim. This aspect of the sacrifice, like every other facet of the service has profound symbolic meaning. Water is a symbol of life. The majority of the world's surface is covered by water, which is also the main element in our body's composition.

When we pray, we offer ourselves.

The outpouring of that water, which is the embodiment of the life force that we experience in the world and in our own bodies, is a message. Its flow gives us insight into God's outpouring compassion and the constancy of His giving. When we sense something of His caring for us, when we let ourselves feel beloved, then the next step is easy to foresee. We realize that it is safe to weep. We can pour ourselves out to others. We can love.

Tears, Rabbi Bachya tells us, is outpouring of compassion. It is from that perspective that we can begin to understand how they open all the gates.

There are times that we must weep for ourselves, and times that we must weep for the world. Every so often, we should let our eyes meet those of the little boy, and those of the others who did not survive.

Let us allow them to soften us, to love life more, and to embrace it with more passion. Let it inspire us to love our children. Let it move us to never accepting cruelty as normalcy.

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