Sunday, October 2, 2016

Tear-Water Tea: Tears and Joy for a New Year

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Bronfman Fellowships | Rosh haShana 2016

My favorite book growing up was Arnold Lobel’sOwl at Home”, especially because of one quirky tale, which always enchanted me. It’s called “Tear-water Tea”, and it starts like this:
Owl took the kettle out of the cupboard. “Tonight I will make tear-water tea,” he said. He put the kettle on his lap. “Now,” said Owl, “I will begin.” Owl sat very still. He began to think of things that were sad. “Chairs with broken legs,” said Owl. His eyes began to water.
“Songs that cannot be sung,” said Owl, “because the words have been forgotten.” Owl began to cry. A large tear rolled down and dropped into the kettle.
The list goes on for some time, and tears roll down Owl’s face and into the kettle. Finally:
“Mashed potatoes left on a plate,” he cried, “because no one wanted to eat them. And pencils that are too short to use.”
Owl thought about many other sad things. He cried and cried.
“There,” said Owl. “That does it!” Owl stopped crying. He put the kettle on the stove to boil for tea. Owl felt happy as he filled his cup. “It tastes a little bit salty,” he said, “but tear-water tea is always very good.”
I wonder now what it was about that story that so enchanted me. The license to cry, I assume, its normalization. But more than that: it’s utility! Lobel delicately said what no one else had every admitted: that tears can be the ingredients for some the world’s finest treats.
As this year comes to a close, too many questions are up in the air to be able to pass much judgement. Yet as I reflected upon this year, personally, communally, nationally (bi-nationally in my case), and globally, I felt like Owl peering into his kettle.
“Mashed potatoes left on a plate because no one wanted to eat them” was there of course, but so was “a culture of debate turned toxic”, “Wars we care deeply about – in our cities and across continents” and its friend “wars we can barely bring ourselves to take notice of”. “Deep seated cynicism” (which can barely allow tears), alongside “wide-eyed idealism”. Which all led up to simple, heartbreaking realities: “Ilness – physical, mental”, “inequality – writ large and small”, the unbearable “people I’ve hurt - and didn’t even notice”, and finally - “Human fragility”, human fallibility”.
This seemed like a good exercise for Rosh haShana: a list of things that bring tears to my eyes. If the Jewish High Holidays are anything, they are the tea kettle into which a year’s tears – of sorrow, of joy - can be shed. Prayers like uNetaneh Tokef, or simply seeing my daughter’s eating apples in honey in good health and new dresses, are an excuse for a good cry –a spiritual experience second to none. There are so few opportunities in modern life where we allow ourselves to cry, invite ourselves to shed tears, seek out the cathartic healing feeling of having blubbered for a good hour… Sorry if this seems overly morose or needlessly emotional to you. To me, perhaps from years of reading “Owl at Home,” nothing seems more appealing on the first day of the New Year.
“A Day for Crying” might in fact be the most accurate translation of the Biblical name of Rosh haShana – Yom Teruah. The Teruah, say the rabbis, is the sound of crying. Only we’re not sure what kind of crying. This becomes part of the reason why we blow the shofar so many time on this day. Maimonides summarizes it well:
Due to the great passage of time and our extended exile - we are no longer sure as to the nature of the "teruah" cited in the Torah.  We do not know whether it is similar to wailing of weeping women (sounded by nine short blasts – today’s teruah), or the slow, deep sobbing of someone heavily burdened (sounded by three medium blasts, today’s shevarim), or whether it is like a sobbing which naturally turns into a wailing (i.e. a shevarim-teruah).  Therefore, we perform all three variations. (Maimonides’ Code, Laws of Shofar 3:2, based on Talmud Bavli Rosh Hashanah 34a)
In an ironic twist, we’ve forgotten how to cry. To much time has passed, too much exile. So we cry in all the different ways: in low sobs, in shrill screams, in sobs that turn into screams; we do so again and again and again, until there are no more tears left in us to draw upon.
Yet the crying is never left to reside on its own. Each cry is bookended by something else – a Tekiah. The Teikah is not a cry, it is a wake up. עורו ישנים מתרדמתכם – awaken sleeping ones from your slumber. Awakening to our role in injustice. Awakening to our ability to return, heal, correct, support. Awakening a sleeping world- which thinks it's awake but is far from it. Awakening to rebirth – combating cynicism and believing again that change – in ourselves, our societies, our systems - is possible.
One wonders, if Rosh haShana, the Yom Truah, is all about crying, why is it not morose like Yom Kippur? Why do we spend most of it feasting instead of fasting, enjoying the best food and creating joyous memories? I’d suggest that while Rosh haShana is a vessel for our tears, encased by a heartbreaking call to awaken and action, it must be encased in joy. There is a deep wisdom to crying as the old year dies, and a new one is born. But it can’t end there.
In the only Rosh haShana ever recorded actually practiced in the Bible, Nehemiah and Ezra are reading the Torah to the people for the first time in centuries (or for the first time ever, if you ask Spinoza ;-) The people – realizing how distant their own practice is from that of the Torah – begin to cry. Fitting for Yom Truah, no? Yet Nehemia stops them:

Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing
 prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. (Nehemiah 8:19)
לְכוּ֩ אִכְל֨וּ מַשְׁמַנִּ֜ים וּשְׁת֣וּ מַֽמְתַקִּ֗ים וְשִׁלְח֤וּ מָנוֹת֙ לְאֵ֣ין נָכ֣וֹן ל֔וֹ כִּֽי־קָד֥וֹשׁ הַיּ֖וֹם לַאֲדֹנֵ֑ינוּ וְאַל־תֵּ֣עָצֵ֔בוּ כִּֽי־חֶדְוַ֥ת ה' הִ֥יא מָֽעֻזְּכֶֽם. (נחמיה ח:י)
Or as Owl put it:
“That does it!” Owl stopped crying. He put the kettle on the stove to boil for tea. Owl felt happy as he filled his cup. “It tastes a little bit salty,” he said, “but tear-water tea is always very good.”

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