Parashat Vayigash

December 10, 2010 | Filed in: Bereshit, Divrei Torah, News

The Healing Power of Tears

By Rabbi Ziona Zelazo

Charles Dickens, in his comedy book Great Expectations wrote: “Heaven knows, we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.” I take crying as a given fact in my life as I cry for joy, for pain and out of fear. I was taught that it is acceptable to cry if you are a little girl or even a mature woman. Unfortunately, some people, especially men, are often ashamed or afraid to cry because of the Western cultural norm which perceives crying as a sign of weakness. Boys are told, “Big boys don’t cry,” or, “Crying is for girls.” However, psychologists today reassure us that for both men and women, tears are a sign of courage, strength, and authenticity. Tears are the body’s release valve for stress sadness, grief, anxiety, and frustration.

It was no surprise, as I read last week and this week’s portion that Joseph, the second powerful and influential man in Egypt breaks down and cries on many different occasions. I felt moved, but also became puzzled as to why the Torah emphasizes the crying of Joseph as an adult, but mentions nothing about his crying as a child, for example, when he was thrown into the pit? What is so special about Joseph now that was not apparent in his childhood?

There is a notable change in the way Joseph expresses himself through tears. At first, he weeps in private and is careful not to be seen crying. Last’s week portion describes Joseph turning away from his brothers and discreetly weeping after he overhears his brothers discuss their wrongdoing (Gen. 42:24). Joseph also cries alone in a nearby room after he sees his brother Benjamin. He makes an effort to erase any signs of crying and he washes his face before he comes out. The text uses the word vayitapak – he held back, which emphasizes Joseph’s efforts to take control of himself not to cry when he is facing his brothers. (Gen. 43:30-31)

In this week’s portion we see a transformation in Joseph’s self expression. V’lo yakhol Yoseph lehitapek (Gen. 45:1) – he is no longer able to hold back; he cries in front of his brothers as he reveals himself to them. However, he is still reluctant to expose his emotional side to the Egyptian slaves, and sends them out of the room. Nevertheless, they were able to hear Joseph’s loud cry as he, at last, lets go tears of pain that were accumulated for twenty two years.

When Joseph releases the tears publically, he finely sheds his false identity and his mask of power. All the years of hurt and resentment seem to melt away, by tears, as closeness with those who were estranged for so long develops. Joseph begs his brothers to come closer to him: “please, come closer to me,” and declares: “I am your brother Joseph.'” (Gen. 45:3) Joseph’s ability to move on to a new and closer relationship with his brothers makes the brothers join him in crying as well. Yet, further relief, redemption and healing come when Joseph and Benjamin cry together: “He embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept, and Benjamin wept upon his neck. He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him.” (Gen. 45:14-15)

We continue to observe Joseph’s emotional healing process in the next week’s portion when he cries for his father’s death (Gen. 50:1) and later when he receives a message from his brothers that they fear for his revenge (Gen. 50:17). It is inevitable to conclude that Joseph demonstrates humility and greatness. He allows himself to pass beyond the past by letting the tears speak for themselves. Thinking of our lives, we remember that tears of adult males are a novelty in our culture, but as men and women, we accumulate many life experiences that influence our behavior. We gather feelings of anger and pain, but often have a hard time letting go of those issues. In particular, the ability to put aside past wrongs done to us is a very difficult emotional change to achieve. Can we envision a way in which we get over the hurt, the resentfulness and betrayal which are part of our meaningful relationship? Perhaps we can be inspired by Joseph and find the way to release some of the pain with emotional tears? When we think of babies who cry all the time, we know that their cry is naturally innocent and has no accumulated experiences. Babies’ crying is the true expression of what they want or feel. So, why can we not be like babies as well?

A research by Dr. William H. Frey shows that tears are emotionally healing and produce relief because of their composition of stress-related chemicals. Therefore, Frey believes that whenever we find tears in our eyes, we need to let them pour without holding them back. This way we would pay attention to who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going.

At times when I shed tears, I am grateful.  I am reminded not only what Charles Dickens had said, but also what my own personal motto is;  that “tears are the living waters of our souls.” May we have the courage to be like Joseph and let tears pour openly as we let go of personal limitations and boundaries. May the holy tears pour from our eyes and cleanse our souls so that we can be true to ourselves and be fully present for those who we love.


Rabbi Ziona Zelazo is an alumna of The Academy for Jewish Religion and works as an Associate Chaplain in The Valley Hospital, Ridgewood, New Jersey.