Yom Kippur, September 11, and the Sea of Tears

A well-known Hasidic tale teaches us about collectivity, and that the experience of crying is part of what makes us human.

Rabbi Joel Seltzer
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The twin towers of the World Trade Center burn behind the Empire State Building in New York, September 11, 2001.
The twin towers of the World Trade Center burn behind the Empire State Building in New York, September 11, 2001.Credit: AP
Rabbi Joel Seltzer

There is a famous Hasidic story which teaches us the power of friendship, human collectivity, and heavenly compassion. The story centers around two Hasidic rabbis, vastly different in their approaches yet united in their spirit. The one, Rebbe Yitzhak Kalish, popularly known as the Vorker Rebbe, believed foremost in patience and peace, and he was known as a goodly and kindly teacher. The other, the Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, was most concerned with the pursuit of truth and he sought it out at the expense of all else. Though their paths were vastly different, they were nonetheless the closest of friends. So much so that even death would not keep them apart.

So, when the Vorker Rebbe passed away, and a full month went by without his appearance in a vision or a dream, the Kotzker Rebbe decided to ascend to heaven in order to search for his friend in all the palaces of Torah study. At every place he stopped, they told him that his beloved friend, the Vorker, had been there but he had gone away.

In growing despair, the Kotzker Rebbe asked the angels, "Where is my dear friend Rebbe Yitzhak?" And the angels sent him in the direction of a dark, dark forest. It was the most fearsome and foreboding forest he had ever been to, but he pushed on, anxious to discover the whereabouts of his friend. As he travelled deeper into the forest he began to hear the sound of gentle waves lapping upon the shore. He reached the edge of the forest and before him lay a great and endless sea, stretching in every direction. But then the Kotzker Rebbe noticed a strange sound. Every wave as it swelled high would cry out a soft, but heart-breaking sob. The sound was terrifying and he turned to run away, but just then he saw, standing at the edge of this wailing sea, staring at its melancholy waters, is holy friend Rebbe Yitzhak.

"I've been looking for you,” said the Kotzker, “why have you not come back to visit me?" Instead of answering his friend, Rebbe Yitzhak asked him a question, "Do you know what sea this is?" The Kotzker replied that he did not, and so Rebbe Yithak explained, "It is the sea of tears. It is the sea which collects all the tears of God's holy people," he said, "and when I saw it I swore in God's name that I would not leave its side until God dried up all these tears."

I think of this story on two days every year: on this morning of September 11, and on the holy day of Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement.

I think of it on September 11, because I can still vividly and viscerally return to that seemingly bright and hope-filled morning 12 years ago; to those moments of horror when innocence was shattered and the world was forever changed. And I remember the tears. The aching sound of infinite tears which fell that day; tears for the men and women who were going to work, who were boarding a plane, who were responding to a cry for help. In many ways, 12 years later, those tears have not yet stopped.

I also think of it on Yom Kippur. I think of it as I experience that moment at twilight, when in synagogues around the world the mournful tones of Kol Nidre elicit in each of us regretful memories of a year that was, a year when we could have done more, done better. And the tears begin to flow.

Personally, and admittedly strangely, the image of Rebbe Yitzhak's heavenly Sea of Tears comforts me. After all, should not heaven have to contend with the cries and the tears of those down below? Is it not God’s job to listen to our prayers, process our petitions, hear our cries and yes, to collect our endless tears? It comforts me to know that Rebbe Yitzhak is there, watching over our tears, praying for them, and therefore for us. It comforts me because it tells me that there is a place where tears go when they dry; the tears of my infant, the tears of my toddler, the tears of my wife, the tears of my mother, my father, my sister, my friends, myself. These tears are precious things, and there can be no more appropriate destination for them than the Sea of Tears.

And this is the ultimate message of the story – our tears teach us about collectivity. Our tears, and indeed the experience of crying at all, are what make us human. It is when we cease being animals and become little less than angels. To cry is to live, and not merely to sleep through life; tears are not something we experience only when we come into contact with death, but rather they are the very essence of our lives.

And on days like today and on Yom Kippur, instead of running from them – I implore us to embrace our tears. For it is only through our brokenness that we can become whole. It is only through honesty that we can repent, and it is only through our tears that we will be redeemed. And in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “If we discover that we cannot succeed, that we have no tears to shed – then let us yearn for them.”

Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the Director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Jewish Summer Camp experience under the educational auspices of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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