Tears make us uniquely human


When I was studying for my doctorate in psychology, we had a number of fairly strict requiarements in addition to our courses in psychology. For example, we were expected to possess a reading knowledge of two foreign languages, and Hebrew was then not one of them. We were also required to study statistics and to take several courses in what was called “the biological bases of behavior.” These courses were designed to provide us would-be experts on the mind with some understanding of the workings of the body.

The instructor was a specialist in human physiology who only lectured sporadically. Instead, he had each of us choose a topic of interest to us, research it thoroughly, and present our findings to the class.

I still remember some of the topics I selected. One was the physiology of sleep, and another, the effects of physical exercise on emotions. My third talk was entitled “Shedding Tears: A Uniquely Human Behavior.”

It amazed me at how little was known about tears back then. Not much more is known today. What we do know is summarized in the dictionary definition: “A tear is a drop of the clear salty liquid that is secreted by the lachrymal gland of the eye to lubricate the surface between the eyeball and the eyelid to wash away irritants.” We know little about the physiological explanations for the correlation between tears and mood, and why women tear up more easily than men.

We know why onions stimulate tears, or why our noses run when we cry. We remain in the dark when we attempt to understand that emotional tears seem to be unique to humans. Crocodiles shed tears, but not because they are upset or inspired.

The connection of human tears to this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayetzei, is in these verses: “Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes; and Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance.”

Many find it curious that the Torah accentuates Rachel’s physical beauty. There is, however, ample precedent for that. Her predecessors Rivka and Sarah are both described as exceedingly beautiful.

But why is Leah’s physical appearance denigrated? Why do we need to be told that her eyes were soft? Is this a virtue or a blemish? Why mention it?

Rashi comments, “Leah supposed that she was destined to marry Esav, hence she shed tears. She heard people say that Rivka had two sons and Lavan two daughters; surely the older daughter would marry the older son, and the younger daughter the younger son.” This assumption that she was destined to spend her life with Esav troubled her greatly, and she cried until tears disfigured her beautiful face.

Chassidic masters have interpreted this seemingly superficial difference between Rachel’s pristine beauty and Leah’s imperfect appearance as symbolic of two types of moral heroines. Rachel represents the perfect tzaddeket who encounters no challenges to her moral perfection. Leah, on the other hand, exemplifies the person who overcomes obstacles and experiences setbacks in her struggle to achieve the status of tzaddeket. Leah’s tears are the tears of a ba’alat teshuvah, one who has known disappointment and failure and whose tears are an essential component of her triumph.

Leah’s weak eyes are not a physical defect. Her tears are not signs of weakness or cowardice; quite the contrary, they encompass her strength of character, and we would be well advised to learn from Leah how and when to cry.

I conclude with this Talmudic teaching, found in Tractate Berachot 32b:

“Rabbi Elazar also said: Since the day the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer were locked, as it is said: ‘Though I plead and call out, He shuts out my prayer.’ (Lamentations 3:80) Yet, despite the fact that the gates of prayer were locked, the gates of tears were never locked, as it is stated (Psalms 39:13): ‘Hear my prayer, Lord, and give ear to my pleading, keep not silence at my tears.’ ”