There is a timeless discussion over whether there is such a thing as love at first sight. How can we know how important someone will be to us, how deeply we will love them, just with a look? How much can we say with one glance? And yet we have a story of love at first sight, right here in our Torah portion, right here in a story we read year after year. Jacob takes off, following his father’s command to find a spouse and journeys through the desert. I can imagine the powdery dust of the dunes settling into every crevasse of his dry hands and feet, turning his skin a shade darker than the effects of the hot sun that hangs overhead like a streetlight. At these times the throat gets so dry that you can hear the rough sound of sandpaper rubbing together in your ears every time you swallow the dry air. Entering a small village Jacob first sees Rachel by a well and right then and there he falls in love with her. As is often the case with our foremothers, Rachel’s story begins with water, as if the love she brings to Jacob is like the cold clear liquid, vital to all life. The water that quenches thirst, that brings comfort, calm and cleanliness is like the great love of his life, and before he even speaks to her that selfsame water comes bursting from his eyes, and tears fall to quench the land of its thirst. The two then greet one another with an embrace. A striking moment, one that foretells a powerful love story, and one that pivots on tears. This vital, life-changing moment, is distinguished with tears.
This brings back memories. I can see the face of my teacher, his serious blue eyes and round face, as he tells me: you can’t fake tears. As a young rabbinic counselor, training to comfort hospital patients as they encountered the terrible news and shocking events that are inevitable in those storied and pale rooms of the long hospital corridors, I knew that when someone broke into tears, when their eyes could no longer hold back the rushing waters that flow through every person’s soul, that they were saying more than what they brought to words, they were saying that there was an intense moment of feeling. I have always taken the tearful eye as a call to me, to listen deeper and to be present in a person’s time of need.
But what is it in those artificial waterworks, in that human well that calls so deeply? To be sure, this is ageless. Before children speak, they cry. When a baby wants to communicate, she uses her piercing scream, and her runny eyes. We learn from the earliest of our days that when we have an important feeling, we cry. Later we learn nuance in our language, maybe even a word or two and that crying gets saved for the most dire of moments, when we really need help. As we move through childhood and adulthood, we push tears so far back that we expect them never to return. “I’m not a child anymore, I don’t need to cry.”
But we do still cry. We cry in times of pain or sorrow or joy. The same summer I worked in that hospital I had the fortune to get to know a long time patient on the third floor. Not in altogether critical condition his health was maintained by the endlessly giving and hardworking nurses, doctors and staff. Most of the times that I walked by his door he was asleep, or had visitors and so I didn’t enter his room, wanting to respect his personal space. Once however, I did catch him awake and while I don’t remember what we spoke about, I remember the conversation was pleasant and that he had a kind demeanor and a warm and soft handshake. At some point I also met his wife, who often retired to the hallway during the many daily medical procedures aimed at boosting his vitals and keeping him comfortable.
I also spent that summer with a beeper stuck to my hip. You remember them, those pre-cell phone devices, black and plastic, about the size of a box of raisins. And anytime a major event occurred, something that critically threatened the health of a patient, I received a message on my belt buckle. I remember when the message came through for his room. By the time I arrived, there was already a flurry of white coats and medical devices. His wife stood outside his room, terrified. I walked over and stood there with her and a moment later we learned that her husband had died. In that moment her tears fell without abandon and she didn’t speak for some time. We sat down and she held my hand, her tears saying more than any words. Sometimes we need to speak in tears.
And we don’t just cry in hospitals. We cry in homes, we cry in classrooms, conference rooms, bathrooms, and bedrooms. But we rarely cry in public. There is a general taboo over crying when other people are around, or when we’re trying to be serious. We have all seen someone embarrassed by the sudden and unexpected onset of tears. The small and speedy drop that falls out of the corner of the eye, as if a small overflow hatch has triggered because the water is too high. It’s embarrassing, because we don’t always want others to know how we feel. Sometimes that’s a good thing, to be able to hold ourselves together when we need to, but other times it’s important to let others know how we are feeling, to let them share the burden of our experience when it is more than we can bear alone.
And we cry here at IHC all the time. Tears of sadness and tears of joy. I’m sure we have a closet somewhere stocked solely with boxes of tissues. And what a beautiful thing, what a holy thing to cry, because in all of these moments, in all of these times when we willingly or unwillingly open the doors to the fountains of our hearts, we say one thing above everything else: that something important is happening. How amazing that instead of holding that moment alone, in our safe place of solitude, we come together in one great voice, in our powerful, loud and beautiful cry.