At a recent funeral where I officiated, a family member spoke. As he began, tears started to flow.
Then he started apologizing. His eulogy alternated between sobs, beautiful words, and apologies.
What he did is not uncommon. At a funeral and in my study, people begin to cry and then apologize for doing so. They see tears as a sign of weakness or vulnerability.
In truth, however, tears are a sign of strength. They are a sign of life. They are a sign of real feeling. We cry because we are alive. We cry because we care.
The 3000 Year Old Tears
The ancient Israelites knew this truth. They saw tears as sacred. Several decades ago, for example, archaeologists discovered a 3000-year-old vessel. It served as a sacred container for human tears.
Sometimes we do not know our feelings until we let them out. Tears do so. Tears, uniquely, can express a range of feelings, often seemingly opposite ones. We cry in pain. And cry in joy. We shed tears of loss and tears of happiness.
What Happens When We Don’t Cry
What happens when we don’t let ourselves cry? We strangle our feelings. We hold them up inside.
Sometimes holding inside our feelings is necessary. Yet, over time we can become acclimated to it. Hiding our feelings becomes natural, and we become callused and insensitive. We forget how to love, how to cherish, how to feel, and feel deeply. We may lose the pain, but in so doing, we also forget the joy.
I tell grieving family members to let themselves cry. Tears testify to their love. They evoke the tenderness and intimacy that make life meaningful and sacred.
One writer calls tears “a sacrament of love.” They are an x-ray of our heart. Even for the ancient rabbis—who privileged study and the intellect as the critical means for relating to God—tears transcended other forms of worship.
Tears are Holy
One of the great eighteenth century rabbis, Mendel of Kotzk, tells the story of one of his students.
This student told Rabbi Mendel that he was suffering and in such pain that he could not pray or study. He felt guilty and ashamed. Then the rabbi said to him, “What if God prefers your tears to your studying?”
Sometimes God prefers our tears to our words. Sometimes God prefers our tenderness to our eloquence.