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"Those Who Sow in Tears Will Reap in Joy"
The transformative power of grief
Note: A version of this piece was delivered as the drasha on the second day of Rosh Hashanah at Darkhei Noam in New York City.
Exactly five weeks and two days ago today, my husband and I got the call we had been expecting, but had hoped against hope would not come. Our doctor confirmed that, for the seventh time, I had gotten pregnant, and then lost the pregnancy. At first I sobbed, but then I went numb. I couldn’t do anything but get into bed and stay there. I didn’t go to my in-laws for Shabbat, like we were supposed to. I didn’t eat dinner, or shower. Instead, I stared at the ceiling and wondered how it would be possible to get up and try to do this all again, when the universe kept saying no.
The thing that finally got me out of bed was a small but mighty voice on the other side of the bedroom door the next morning. I heard E, our toddler, yelling, “KNOCK KNOCK!” (That’s what she does instead of actually knocking.) When I opened the door, she ran right to me and yelled, “Mommy! Huggie!” and head butted me in the knees. (That’s what she does instead of hugging.) That was the moment that I finally got up. And that was also when I finally started to cry. The tears were both painful and cathartic, as I felt the gut punch of the loss coupled with the reminder of the incredible tiny person I already had. My grief for what we had lost yet again felt endless, but my gratitude at also having more than I could have hoped for was infinite.
We often think of the arc of the calendar at this time of year as being about the Yamim Noraim, or perhaps from slichot through Yom Kippur, or Elul through Simchat Torah. But it actually begins with Tisha b’Av, when we transition from the three weeks of condemnation to the seven weeks of consolation that culminate in Rosh Hashanah. And I’ve found myself, over the last weeks and months, thinking about how deeply the Yamim Nora’im and Tisha b’Av are intertwined. In many ways, they focus on our failures, whether collective or individual. On Tisha b’Av, we sit on the floor and recount our communal losses. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the first thing the chazan says before Musaf is הנני העני ממעש נרעש ונפחד--"here I am, impoverished of good deeds, trembling and full of loss.” We do not start to daven until we admit our myriad failures. However, there is a real difference between the sorrow of Tisha b’Av and the sorrow of Yamim Nora’im. Tisha b’Av is about despair, but the Yamim Nora’im are about grief. Despair is the belief that things will always be as they are, so there is no reason to try to change them. Grief is the ability to see the gap between how things are and how we believe they could be. The grief exists in that gap, but it also reminds us that the gap can close. And is where teshuva happens.
If there is a parallel in the imagery of pain that emerges around both Tisha b’Av and Rosh Hashanah, it is the pain of mothers, and would-be mothers. In Eicha, we read of women who have had to eat their children to stop themselves from starving, and when we say the kinnah Eli Tzion, the cries of the Jews people are described, כמו אישה בציריה, like a woman in pain from labor. And of course, mothers in pain permeate the Rosh Hashanah leining. Yesterday, we read about Hagar’s tears after she and Yishmael were banished. We read about Hannah’s longing to be a mother, which was so strong that she could not even bring herself to rejoice in the Mishkan. Today, we read the story of Akedat Yitzchak. The midrash that tells us after the Akedah, Satan told Sarah that Avraham had sacrificed their beloved son, and she died from despair. And in the haftarah we just heard, Yirmiyahu evokes the tears of Rachel:
כֹּה ׀ אָמַר ה׳ קוֹל בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל־בָּנֶיהָ מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל־בָּנֶיהָ כִּי אֵינֶֽנּוּ׃
Thus said Hashem: A cry is heard in Ramah — Wailing, bitter weeping— Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted, For her children, who are gone.
So here we have these mothers, deep in pain. The nameless women facing the destruction of Yerushalayim and of their families. The woman in labor who is unsure if she will survive to see her child. Hagar, who abandons her son because she cannot bear to see him die. Hannah, who refuses comfort from her husband, even as he tells her she is worth more to him than ten sons. Sarah, who, in the rabbinic tradition, cannot go on if she has lost Yitzchak. Rachel, who is מאנה להנחם, refusing comfort. And the fifth mother of Rosh Hashanah, the nameless mother of Sisera in Shoftim. She does not appear in the leining or the liturgy, but rather in the gemara in Rosh Hashanah, where Abaye tells us that when we blow shofar, the cry of the truah mirrors Sisera’s mother’s cry, when she realizes her son is not returning from battle. Even as the mother of Israel’s mortal enemy, her cry is potent enough that we evoke it when we blow shofar in hopes of storming the heavens with our prayers.
So why is the liturgy, written by men, so preoccupied with these women? Is there something pure about the cries mothers have for their children, or is it something else? Why do these mothers become the paradigms for our beseeching of Hashem to forgive us and our sins as we confront our many deficiencies?
While trying to understand this, I stumbled upon a midrash in Bereshit Rabbah on the verse “וַיַּרְא ה' כִּי שְׂנוּאָה לֵאָה, “ Hashem saw that Leah was hated.” Interpreting the verse from Tehillim 145, סמוך ה׳ את כל הנופלים, “God supports all of the fallen,” the midrash says, “אֵלּוּ הָעֲקָרוֹת, שֶׁהֵם נוֹפְלִין בְּתוֹךְ בָּתֵּיהֶם”--these are the infertile women, who have fallen within their households. The midrash is making a point about how Leah’s status was elevated once she was able to bear children, while Rachel was diminished from her inability to do so. But there’s also an interesting play on words happening. The נופלין, the fallen ones, referenced in the verse from Tehillim, shares a root with the word נפל, which is the word used for a stillbirth. Who are the ones who have fallen? The would-be mothers, who have been unable to bear children. But also the promise of those children who would have been, and what they would have represented. Rachel is represented by all of the children she does not have, living in a moment where that is supposed to be the destiny of every woman. That is why she tells Yaakov, הָֽבָה־לִּי בָנִים וְאִם־אַיִן מֵתָה אָנֹֽכִי, “Give me children or I will die.” There is little joy in this version of Rachel’s life, when she struggles with infertility, then dies in childbirth and then, in the mind of Yirmiyahu, cries over the alienation of the children she had sought so long to have.
But then the midrash takes a surprising turn. It asks a question, based on today’s haftarah--why does it say רחל מבכה על בניה, Rachel cries for her sons? Rachel is only the mother of two sons, and of three of the tribes. Yet it is clear, if one looks at Yirmiyahu, she is crying for all of the Jewish people, who have been sent into exile. So how can Yirmiyahu call us all her sons?
R. Shimon bar Yochai offers the following suggestion. Referring to Rachel’s helping Leah marry Yaakov and therefore avoid humiliation, he says,:
לְפִי שֶׁכָּל הַדְּבָרִים תְּלוּיִין בְּרָחֵל, לְפִיכָךְ נִקְרְאוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל עַל שְׁמָהּ (ירמיה לא, טו): רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל בָּנֶיהָ. וְלֹא סוֹף דָּבָר לִשְׁמָהּ, אֶלָּא לְשֵׁם בְּנָה (עמוס ה, טו): אוּלַי יֶחֱנַן ה' צְבָאוֹת שְׁאֵרִית יוֹסֵף. וְלֹא סוֹף דָּבָר לְשֵׁם בְּנָהּ, אֶלָּא לְשֵׁם בֶּן בְּנָהּ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ירמיה לא, יט): הֲבֵן יַקִּיר לִי אֶפְרַיִם.
Because of all of these things, therefore Israel was called by her name: Rachel cries for her sons. And there was no end to her name, but rather, even through the name of her son: “Perhaps Hashem Tzevakot will have compassion on the remainder of Yosef.” And there is no end to the name of her sons, but rather, even through the name of her son’s sons, as it says, “My beloved son Ephraim.”
The midrash goes on to explain that Rachel goes from עקרה, infertile, to עיקר, the central character in the building of Israel. Rachel is filled with despair over and over, certain that her emotional pain will kill her and again, when her physical pain actually does. Then, in Yirmiyahu, she is filled with grief, as she sees that her beloved Israel is still there, but alienated from God and from Yerushalayim. And finally, in the midrash, there is joy, as God promises her that Israel will be reconciled with Hashem and Yerushalayim, and that reconciliation will happen in her name.
I imagine, if I could speak to Rachel, my namesake, she would tell me that the scars left by her myriad losses never fully healed. The trauma caused by her many disappointments cannot be annulled by a happy ending. But perhaps the joy of knowing, as Yirmiyahu promises, יֵשׁ־תִּקְוָה לְאַחֲרִיתֵךְ, there is hope for your future, would bring some amount of comfort.
When we blow the shofar during Musaf, when we evoke the cry of Sisera’s mother, each time we will say היום הרת עולם--today the world is born. Out of the labor pains of Tisha b’Av comes, with Rosh Hashanah, the birth of something new and beautiful, if inevitably precarious. The birth is painful, and it is not without collateral. But it brings the promise of a new beginning. As we all know, some of us too well, both grief and despair are unavoidable. It might not take the form of mothers crying out for their children, but it is no less real, raw, or potent. And yet, pain is part of what it means to be human. All we can hope for is to summon the strength to turn despair into grief, because that is when we can begin to see our way out.
It’s not an accident that sukkot, זמן שמחתינו, the season of joy, comes after the Yamim Noraim, just as the Yamim Noraim must follow Tisha b’Av. Because if we really reflect on the grief we are feeling, we will see the teshuva we need to do, and begin to close the gap between who we are and who we want to be. The grief can productive, but only if we acknowledge that it is there and confront it directly.
When we named E, we gave her a third Hebrew name. Her first two names are for two of her great grandmothers, but her third name is רינה, joy. We chose this name because of the pasuk from Tehillim--הזורעים בדמעה ברינה יקצורו--those who sow in tears will reap in joy. I am not sure we could have chosen a more perfect name for her. There were many, many tears for us to reach E, and there have been even more tears since. I hold my grief with me every minute of every day, and I think in one way or another, I probably always will. I will never stop longing for the baby girls who would have been 10 months or seven months, or the little boy who was due tomorrow, or the baby who was supposed to be growing in me today, its existence still a secret from the world. And yet, every time that grief threatens to turn into despair, I am reminded that I am so, so blessed to have 27 pounds of pure joy knocking on my door, wanting to give me kisses. That’s what הזורעים בדמעה ברינה יקצורו means. If you have enough courage to continue to sow even when your pain makes it feel pointless, one day, God willing, your joy will grow and grow.
So that is my wish for myself, and my family, and for all of us this year--that we continue to grow in ways we never imagined possible. We might wish for a year without grief, but when it inevitably comes, may we find a way to confront it, rather than letting it bury us. And may that lead us to reap in more and more and more joy. הזורעים בדמעה ברינה יקצורו. So it should be all for us, that we will be inscribed not only in the book of life, but also the book of joy and gladness and abundant blessing. Amen.