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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת ויגש, תש״פ

Parshat Vayigash, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, January 4th, 2020

You Can Cry In Shul

A disciple asked Rebbe Menahem Mendel of Kotsk about a verse of Torah. “The V’ahavta reads: Place these words, these mitzvot, upon your heart. Why does Torah tell us to ‘set them upon your heart, on top of your heart? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?”

The Rebbe answered, “It is because when we are born, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place holy words inside them. So we place them upon - on top of - our hearts. And there they stay until one day, our hearts break, and the words fall in.

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Big girls may not cry, but Biblical men certainly do. When Joseph’s brothers frame his death, their father Jacob refuses to be consoled and cries for his son. When Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers in Parashat Vayigash, he cries so loudly that all of Egypt can hear. Joseph cries yet again on his youngest brother Benjamin’s shoulders, and again when he reunites with his father Jacob for the first time in decades. Every week in this room, we read the stories of these characters racked with emotion, characters from which we are supposed to learn. Our sanctuary space is not free from stories of tears, and so, it cannot be a place free of real life tears, real life emotions.

In the viewpoint of Rebbe Menahem Mendel of Kotsk, we cannot receive the words of Torah, the lessons taught by the practice of mitzvot, without the experience of a broken heart. Without allowing our hearts to be torn open, what is our motivation for practicing and seeking? How can we know the meaning of the kindness and equanimity we’re commanded to practice, if we haven’t been victims of the opposite? How can we fully be there to visit the ill and mourning, if we haven’t been in a place of the illness or mourning ourselves? As this synagogue space is one in which we gather to learn Torah, it must be one in which we are able to tear our hearts open just a little bit more each time we enter, each time we learn something new.

In this room, you are welcome to bring sadness, guilt, and anger. In this room, we have books full of millenia of poetry to address a wide swath of feelings. We have other congregants and visitors who have experienced that sadness, guilt, and anger and can be sources of comfort or information about how to heal. In this room, you are welcome to feel upset or frustrated with things you learn, opinions you hear, or phrases you read in a siddur. We cannot be confident in what we believe without encountering what we know we cannot accept. In this room, we are human beings who, along with being able to read words on a page and raise our voices in song, can cry and laugh and can acknowledge that others here have emotional needs as well. If you ever feel like crying in this room, you will be embodying the Biblical - you can let it out. Whether it’s a response to an experience in this room or just a release from a hard day at work or home, the tissues out here are not just for allergies; they’re here for you to embrace your marvelous humanity.

Last week, I mentioned a Talmudic story of a group of three rabbis who would greet each other in their times of physical and spiritual illness and ask, “Is your suffering worthwhile to you?” The answer was inevitably, “Not it, and not its rewards.” A greater message arises than their anti-suffering theology, when Rabbi Yohanan asks Rabbi Elazar what is the matter, listens, and sits down to cry with him. Not only must this center of Jewish learning and worship be a place of personal freedom to break down a little; it must be a place of acceptance of others’ reactions to dismay. It’s not easy to enter into another’s emotional space, and yet, in this building, when we see another who seems troubled, we must take the initiative of Rabbi Yohanan. We ask if we can be of comfort, and if we can, we validate how they’re feeling and sit on the same level with them to hold their hand and cry.

When Jacob and Joseph sob through the end of the book of Genesis, they do so on other’s shoulders. As we are the inheritors of a tradition of these holy men, let us be the big men and women who do cry and make space for others to do the same. Shabbat Shalom.