Through the Gate of Tears

September 24, 2017

11 min read


Actualizing your potential on the Days of Awe.

After crying intermittently for 36 hours, ever since the eerie wail of ambulance sirens carrying the dead and wounded from the terror attack at the Hillel Cafe woke me up last Tuesday night, I thought I had no more tears to shed. Then I saw the picture of the wedding dress.

It appeared in an Israeli newspaper -- a photo of a long, white, taffeta and chiffon gown, hanging forlornly on a hanger on the door of the bride's bedroom closet, because the 20-year-old bride, Nava Applebaum, is clothed in a shroud instead. Nava was buried together with her father, Dr. David Applebaum, on the day that was supposed to be her wedding day.

The photo next to it shows Nava's fiance Chanan Sand beside Nava's open grave, holding the wedding ring he had intended to place on her finger. He placed it instead on her lifeless body as it was lowered into the grave.

There are other pictures in that day's newspaper: A picture of the handsome, smiling 39-year-old Yaakov Ben Shabbat, who was killed in Tuesday's terrorist attack outside the Tzirfin army base. He had left work early in order to purchase a cake for his eight-year-old daughter's birthday.

There's a photo of a bereft, crying 12-year-old, Sapir Moshe, being supported by relatives at the funeral of his mother, killed while sipping coffee with her friend at Cafe Hillel.

There's a picture of two smiling young soldiers: Yonathan Peleg and Efrat Schwartzman, killed together in the Tzrifin attack. Yonathan was killed instantly; Efrat succumbed to her wounds the next morning. "She surely didn't want him to go alone," cried Yonathan's father.

There's a picture of the weeping, anguished parents of 22-year-old Alon Mizrachi, the guard at the Hillel Cafe, who fell on the terrorist, struggled with him, and was blown up with him.

In my newspaper, however, the page with the most tearstains is the photo of the wedding dress. The tragedy of Nava Applebaum is the most wrenching of all of Tuesday's 15 victims because it represents all that could have been -- that came so close to being -- but was not: The joy of the two sets of parents, the jubilation of the young couple, the union they had planned and waited for, and the rejoicing of the 500 guests who were invited to the wedding and attended the bride's funeral instead.

I look around me and see on the tearstained faces of everyone I meet that we, the broken and bleeding Jews of Israel, who have sustained over 800 losses during the three years of the "Oslo War," we are decimated by the pain of holy Nava's aborted wedding.


The Unesana Tokef prayer of the High Holyday liturgy declares: "On Rosh Hashana it is inscribed and on Yom Kippur it is sealed… who will live and who will die, who will die at his predestined time and who not at his predestined time, who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by storm…"

Jews are supposed to cry on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Jews are supposed to cry on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Rabbi Avigdor Nebanzahl wrote that if the Jewish people would cry tears of repentance on Rosh Hashana, when all the occurrences of the subsequent year are determined, we would not have to cry tears of grief throughout the year.

It's hard to summon tears of repentance. What we did throughout the year -- in terms of others and God and ourselves -- may not have been exemplary, but was it really so bad? I feel a twinge of guilt when I remember speaking harshly to someone, but should I shed tears over that little misdemeanor? I regret my impatience with my husband and children, but, after all, I'm only human.

The sages say that ever since the destruction of the Second Holy Temple, the "gate of prayer" is closed, but the "gate of tears" is always open. What is the secret to accessing the well of tears?

Starting a month before Rosh Hashana and culminating in Yom Kippur, Jews are bidden to examine their deeds and "do teshuva." The word teshuva, usually translated as repentance, means "returning." We are supposed to return to God and to some improved version of ourselves. The term is fraught with irony; most of us have never even visited the spiritual level we aspire to "return" to.

Teshuva means not a sudden change of lifestyle, but a determined change of direction. If I was proceeding southward, now I turn around and take my first sure steps eastward. Teshuva entails making a concrete plan to actualize change in small but steady increments.


The prospect of teshuva frightens many of us, because we consider it a calumny against who we already are. The English term "repentance" implies that I am a despicable sinner, loathsome in my own eyes and in the eyes of God, sullied by my actions, like a filthy, smelly vagrant in need of a bath.

Teshuva is an affirmation, not a rejection, of who we are on the deepest level.

Rebbetzin Tzipora Heller points out the true Jewish attitude toward teshuva: Not, "How wicked I am because I did that," but rather, "How could someone like me have done something like that?" Teshuva is an affirmation, not a rejection, of who we are on the deepest level. Rather than being characterized by our lowly actions, we repudiate our lowly actions as being unworthy of the holy souls we inherently are.

We cry on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur when we reflect on what we could have been, when we compare our majestic potential to our shabby reality. Every one of us has the potential to be spiritually great, to perfectly accomplish our task in this world, to valiantly meet our challenges, and to dexterously fix our shortcomings. On the High Holydays, we reflect on the perfected vision of ourselves, and cry over the mediocrity we permitted in its place.

  • We could have been magnanimous. Instead we were petty.
  • We could have been generous. Instead we were stingy.
  • We could have been honest. Instead we told self-serving lies.
  • We could have buoyed up others with kind words. Instead we wounded them with deprecations.
  • We could have esteemed our parents for their ongoing contribution to our lives. Instead we made them feel useless and outdated.
  • We could have made our homes sanctuaries of love and peace. Instead we degenerated into bickering and blaming.
  • We could have spent our spare time studying the profundities of the Torah. Instead we opted for cable TV.
  • We could have become the person God created us to be. Instead we settled for a mediocre imitation.

My friend Sarah taught me to visualize what she calls "my full potential self." This is the perfected image of myself in all its details. I see the way my full potential self walks, the gentle, soothing tone with which she speaks, the warm smile she gives to everyone she encounters, the delicate touch with which she caresses the world.

While each of us has a "full potential self," the Torah delineates the general form of every Jew's full potential self: it does not speak ill of others, nor embarrass others, nor afflict others with words or actions; it respects the property of others; it controls untoward passions; it honors parents; it is scrupulously honest in business; etc.

The "sins" we do teshuva for on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the instances we fell short of our full potential self. One word for "sin" in Hebrew is chait, which means "missing the mark." The disparity between our full potential and our present reality fuels our heartfelt teshuva.


The culprit which keeps us from crying over our failures is the sense that we have all the time in the world to fix them. Twenty years ago I had on my desk a plaque proclaiming: "Be patient. God isn't finished with me yet." Unfortunately, patience -- a sterling trait when applied to others -- can degenerate into complacency when applied to ourselves. Such an attitude depletes our spiritual quest of energy and urgency. Instead of hastening to actualize our inner goals, we amble.

Patience -- a sterling trait when applied to others -- can degenerate into complacency when applied to ourselves.

Personally, I find that I never finish any project that doesn't have a deadline. The Jewish calendar gives us a deadline for teshuva: Rosh Hashana. Then God in His mercy grants us a ten-day extension. Yom Kippur is the final deadline.

Rosh Hashana forces us to confront the truth that we do not have all the time in the world, for two reasons: The other people in our lives will not always be here; and we will not always be here.

The relationships that we need to mend can be mended only as long as the other person is alive. The place in the Yom Kippur service where I shed the most profuse tears is the line in the Confessional, "For the sin I have committed before You in devaluing parents and teachers." Both my parents have gone to the other world. Now there is no way to fix the words uttered with an exasperated tone, the conversations with them curtly curtailed for "more important" obligations. My ability to do complete teshuva on this relationship was buried with my parents.

The other illusion that makes us procrastinate in doing teshuva is our failure to face our own mortality. One searing lesson we Jews in Israel have learned from this war of terror is the fragility of life. I venture to say that not one of us is sure he or she will be here next Rosh Hashana -- or tomorrow.

Our friends Michael and Miriam live in the town of Efrat. During the first year of the Oslo War, the "tunnels road" to Efrat was an intermittent target of terrorist gunfire. Several people were killed on that road. One evening Michael was driving home while talking to Miriam on his cellphone. They started to argue about something. Suddenly Michael noticed he was on the "tunnels road." He abruptly ended the argument, saying, "I'm driving on the 'tunnels road' now. How would we feel if the last conversation we ever had was an argument?"

Ultimately, we are all driving on the "tunnels road." For all we know -- given the exigencies of accidents, heart attacks, and terror attacks -- every conversation could be our last. What a tragedy it would be if our last encounter in this world ends up being an argument, a nasty complaint, a sarcastic joke, a petty criticism…

Two millennia ago the sage Hillel taught: "If not now, when?" If I don't actualize my potential now, who knows if I will have another chance? If I don't fix my bad traits now, in this world, which the Kabbalists called, "the world of fixing," I might very well be buried with my shortcomings.

Death is the final, unbridgeable chasm between what could have been and what is. The ultimate agony is the remorse each of us will feel when we find ourselves in the "other world," totally unable to fix any of our flaws or failures. This is the Jewish definition of hell.


Yom Kippur is a miraculous gift God gives us every year. God's offer is too good to refuse: If we do teshuva, He will give us kapora, atonement. This means that He will press the "delete" button on the actions and patterns that entrap us. When the shofar blows at the end of Yom Kippur, we are, for that moment, our full potential self.

Of course, we are free post Yom Kippur to lapse into old patterns of behavior, to pick up where we left off, to change directions back again. But on Yom Kippur itself, if we have done teshuva, God picks us up and moves us over the chasm between who we are and who we truly want to be.

According to Jewish tradition, one's wedding day is like Yom Kippur. The bride and groom fast, pray the prayers of Yom Kippur, and are forgiven all their sins. When they stand under the wedding canopy, they are in a state of pristine perfection.

According to Jewish tradition, grooms wear a long-sleeved, knee-length white garment called a kittel. The kittel is worn for the first time at the wedding, then on every Yom Kippur, and finally as a burial shroud.

It is possible to be spiritually great. It is possible to be as pure and exalted on the day of death as on Yom Kippur or the wedding day. Dr. David Applebaum, who, with selfless dedication, single-handedly changed the face of emergency medicine in Jerusalem, did it. Nava Applebaum, who lovingly, joyfully cared for juvenile cancer patients, did it. For such individuals, who viewed life as an opportunity to perfect themselves and the world, the shroud and the wedding garment are one.



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