The Gates of Tears: Nitzavim VaYelekh 5780

A student touched me deeply today when I opened our Zoom meeting and found them weeping. “Why are you crying?” I asked. They said, “How can I stand before my community and lead them in prayer when such terrible things are happening? How can I pray for blessing when things are so wrong?”

How indeed? What gives us the strength and the hope to ask God to bless the world when we are ravaged by pandemic, scorched by massive wildfires in the West, brought low by economic collapse and demoralized by a political system and politicians who shock us with selfish and irresponsible conduct? How can we summon the confidence to ask for blessing when we are isolated and concerned, dreading whether worse is yet to come? In such a moment, tears are the most rational response.

Bavli Brakhot 32b says that since the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer are closed, citing Lamentations 3:8 (And when I cry and plead, [God] shuts out my prayer), yet claims that the gates of tears always remain open. Still, as you may know, the mourner’s kaddish is missing the “titkabeil” paragraph (“Accept the prayers and requests of all Israel…”) because it seems unreasonable, cruel even, to tell mourners to expect the granting of their desires while tears flow down their cheeks. And in a sense we are all mourning, whether for relatives and friends who have died, or for many other losses that we have experienced in recent months. How indeed can we pray?

The earliest source I have found for the custom of modifying prayer from sorrow is 12th century Germany, when Ra’avyah says that on fast days we do not say “titkabeil.” A generation later Shibolei HaLeket explains this in reference to Lamentations 3:8. Mourners (individual or communal) may feel that their prayers are shut out, and so our tradition sensitively adjusts expectations, asking us to pray, but perhaps not to call out with confidence. The 14th-15th century Austrian book of customs Sefer Minhagim says that on Tisha B’Av following Eicha we delete titkabeil for the rest of the day.

These medieval rabbis recognize that grief must be acknowledged, and they found a subtle liturgical adjustment to make the point. Perhaps too subtle! It remains difficult to pray in the face of so much sorrow, and this too, was known by our ancestors. On the same page of Talmud (Brakhot 32b) Rabbi Hama says in the name of Rabbi Hanina that if at first your prayers are not accepted, then return and pray once more.

The passage continues that four activities require strength and persistence: Torah study, and good deeds, and prayer, and earning a living. The first two examples are “proven” with reference to our second parashah, VaYelekh, in which Moses tells the people of Israel to be “strong and of good courage” (חִזְקוּ וְאִמְצוּ) and then tells Joshua the same, in the singular (חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ). The rabbis claim that the first of these synonyms for strength refers to Torah study, and the second to righteous conduct.

Many commentators notice that there is a shift in Deut. 31:6. The verse begins in the plural, and ends in the singular. Moses Al Sheikh says that only when the many become one does God bless the people with strength. This is ancient and effective Jewish wisdom—when we feel discouraged and incapable of standing up in prayer, we need to unite our people, drawing strength from them and giving it back.

Another biblical text that explores the emotions of abandonment and despair is Psalm 27. The Psalmist envisions the cruelest abandonment—“though my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will gather me.” This may refer to the death of parents, or perhaps to their actual abandonment. Siddur Sim Shalom softens this blow, offering, “depart” instead of abandon. But abandoned is correct—it is worse than being alone when those one loved leave them behind.

For this reason, the closing line of Psalm 27 reads as a motivational speech, delivered to oneself. “Hope in the Lord—be strong and of good courage—and hope in the Lord!” According to the Talmud, this repetition recognizes the difficulty of prayer. “Hope” is understood as prayer, but just because you try to pray doesn’t mean that you will succeed. And so, the rabbis say, try again.

How can we pray when there is such sorrow in the world? Perhaps we can’t, at least not without great effort. So we start, and then we stop, and then we start again. We sense others around us (whether physically or spiritually) doing the same, and they become our source of courage. Things will never be “the same,” whatever that means, but our lives can be filled once more with blessing and joy, if we make this journey together.

איכה פרק ג פסוק ח

גַּם כִּי אֶזְעַק וַאֲשַׁוֵּעַ שָׂתַם תְּפִלָּתִי:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף לב עמוד ב

ואמר רבי אלעזר: מיום שחרב בית המקדש ננעלו שערי תפלה, שנאמר: גם כי אזעק ואשוע שתם תפלתי, ואף על פי ששערי תפלה ננעלו שערי דמעה לא ננעלו, שנאמר שמעה תפלתי ה’ ושועתי האזינה אל דמעתי אל תחרש.

ראבי”ה חלק ג – הלכות תענית סימן תתצ

ואומר קדיש בלא תתקבל אלא יהא שלמא רבא. לעולם אחר קינות אין אומרין תתקבל

ספר שבלי הלקט סדר תענית סימן רסז

ואין אומרין תתקבל לא בקדיש דערבית ולא בקדיש של שחרית לפי שנאמר גם כי אזעק ואשוע סתם תפלתי ואין אומרין עלינו לשבח לפי שנאמר גם כי תרבו תפלה אינני שומע:

ספר המנהגים (טירנא) תשעה באב

וקדיש שלם בלא תתקבל שנאמר (ס)שתם תפילתי (שם ג, ח). זה הכלל כל הקדישים מן קריאת איכה עד שילכו למחר מבית הכנסת, ואחר איוב כולו בלא תתקבל.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף לב עמוד ב

אמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: אם ראה אדם שהתפלל ולא נענה יחזור ויתפלל שנאמר קוה אל ה’ חזק ויאמץ לבך וקוה אל ה’. תנו רבנן, ארבעה צריכין חזוק ואלו הן: תורה, ומעשים טובים, תפילה ודרך ארץ. תורה ומעשים טובים מנין – שנאמר רק חזק ואמץ מאד לשמר ולעשות ככל התורה. חזק – בתורה, ואמץ – במעשים טובים. תפלה מנין – שנאמר קוה אל ה’ חזק ויאמץ לבך וקוה אל ה’; דרך ארץ מנין – שנאמר חזק ונתחזק בעד עמנו וגו’.

דברים פרשת וילך פרק לא פסוק ו – ח

(ו) חִזְקוּ וְאִמְצוּ אַל תִּירְאוּ וְאַל תַּעַרְצוּ מִפְּנֵיהֶם כִּי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ הוּא הַהֹלֵךְ עִמָּךְ לֹא יַרְפְּךָ וְלֹא יַעַזְבֶךָּ: פ (ז) וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה לִיהוֹשֻׁעַ וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו לְעֵינֵי כָל יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ כִּי אַתָּה תָּבוֹא אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְקֹוָק לַאֲבֹתָם לָתֵת לָהֶם וְאַתָּה תַּנְחִילֶנָּה אוֹתָם: (ח) וַיקֹוָק הוּא הַהֹלֵךְ לְפָנֶיךָ הוּא יִהְיֶה עִמָּךְ לֹא יַרְפְּךָ וְלֹא יַעַזְבֶךָּ לֹא תִירָא וְלֹא תֵחָת:

תהלים פרק כז פסוק י – יד, י-יד

(י) כִּי אָבִי וְאִמִּי עֲזָבוּנִי וַיקֹוָק יַאַסְפֵנִי: (יא) הוֹרֵנִי יְקֹוָק דַּרְכֶּךָ וּנְחֵנִי בְּאֹרַח מִישׁוֹר לְמַעַן שׁוֹרְרָי: (יב) אַל תִּתְּנֵנִי בְּנֶפֶשׁ צָרָי כִּי קָמוּ בִי עֵדֵי שֶׁקֶר וִיפֵחַ חָמָס: (יג) לוּלֵא הֶאֱמַנְתִּי לִרְאוֹת בְּטוּב יְקֹוָק בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים: (יד) קַוֵּה אֶל יְקֹוָק חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ וְקַוֵּה אֶל יְקֹוָק:

אלשיך פרשת וילך

חזקו ואמצו אל תיראו ואל תערצו מפניהם כי יי אלהיך הוא ההלך עמך לא ירפך ולא יעזבך. (ו):  אמר מה שתצטרכו להתחזק ולהתאמץ בל תיראו ואל תערצו מהבטת פניהם, הוא בהיותכם בלתי בעלי אחדות ומתייחסים לרבים, כי על כן אמרתי בלשון רבים חזקו כו’, אך אם תתאחדו אינכם צריכים דבר, כי ה’ אלהיך עמך כו’ ומורא לא תעבור עליכם, כי הלא ה’ אלהיך עמך לא ירפך מלהיות לך רפיון, וכל שכן מורא ותשות כח, ולא יעזבך מהיות עמך להמיתם על ידיך:

שפתי כהן דברים פרשת וילך

ואמר קודם חזקו ואמצו בלשון רבים ואחר כך אמר אל תירא ואל תחת בלשון יחיד, אמר להם על שני ענינים ראוים אתם להצלה, אחת שאתם רבים והן אל כביר ולא ימאס, וזכותא דרבים עדיף, ואחת לפי שאתם כולכם בלב אחד ומקבלים אלהותו כאחד, זהו כי ה’ אלהיך עמך לא ירפך ולא יעזבך:

Biographies from Bar Ilan Responsa Drive

R. Eliezer ben R. Yoel Halevi, Ra’avyah, was born ca. 1140 in Mainz, Germany, and passed away in Cologne, ca. 1220.

R. Zedakiah ben R. Avraham Ha – Rofe of the Anavim family was born in Rome ca. 1210. During his youth he studied in Wurzberg, Germany, with students of R. Samson of Sens.

R. Isaac Tyrnau lived in Austria during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. He wrote about a book on customs (Sefer Ha – Minhagim), especially those pertaining to prayer and the synagogue.

Rabbi Moses (Maharam)Alshech was born in Turkey in 1507, and died sometime after 1593. Alshech came from a family of Spanish origin. He emigrated to Israel and settled in Safed, where he became a dayyan in the rabbinical court headed by Rabbi Joseph Caro. His Sabbath sermons and discourses formed the basis of his famous commentary on the Bible. His commentary to the Torah was first published in 1593, and the Project contains the commentary based upon the new corrected edition published by Machon Lev Sameiach, Jerusalem, 1990.

Rav Mordechai HaKohen lived at the turn of the 17th century. He was a student of Rav Yosef Karo, the Mabit and other prominent Torah leaders of Tzefat. His writings focus mainly on kabbalah, and he was best known for his work, “Siftei Kohen”, which is a commentary on the Torah that draws from Talmudic, Midrashic and kabbalistic sources. It was first published in his lifetime, in Venice, 5365 (1605), and has since been republished several times. His sefer became known by the acronym, “Shach”, and he was hence often confused with the author of the “Shach” commentary on Shulchan Aruch, Rav Shabtai Kohen.