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Amid Israel’s war in Gaza, there is talk of drafting yeshivah students into the army to bolster its ranks. On Shavuot, we celebrate the anniversary of receiving the Torah, so I want to write about the role of Torah in war. The Torah is not just a dusty old book …

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Home » Events in the News, Life Is Beautiful, Sh'lach L'chah

Shelach: To Smile or To Cry?

Submitted by on June 13, 2020 – 11:51 pmNo Comment | 1,477 views

The Torah relates a fascinating human-interest story about people who couldn’t help themselves and had to satisfy their curiosity. As is often the case, when we chase down our curiosities, they turn against us.

It had been more than a year since the Jews had left Egypt, and they were anxious to enter Israel. However, they were curious about what kind of land it was, and asked Moses to send spies to scout the land. I won’t belabor the story because you are likely familiar with it, but the bottom line is that the spies returned from their trip to Israel with a terrible report. The inhabitants were fierce warriors, the battlegrounds would be killing grounds, and if they knew what was best for them, they should not go.

The people were horrified and spent the night in bitter tears. One person began to cry, another assumed the worst and joined, a third followed, and before long the night was awash in a river of tears. The Talmud tells us that G-d was bothered by these tears and declared, you cried false tears on this night, behold you shall cry genuine tears on this night. Sure enough, twice on that night, many years later—in 420 BCE in 69 CE—the Babylonians and the Romans respectively ransacked he Temple in Jerusalem.[1]

There is something odd about this story. It seems that G-d was more concerned by the tears than the fact that they accepted the terrible report. G-d had promised them a land flowing with milk and honey, yet they trusted the spies’ report. They were punished for this in a measured way. Rather than entering Israel, the nation roamed the desert for nearly forty years while that generation died a natural death and the next generation entered Israel. This was a measured punishment, but the punishment for the tears was herculean. The ransacking of two temples and the exiles that followed from which we still suffer.

On the surface, the lack of faith was a greater offense than the tears, yet the tears were punished more harshly implying that they were more offensive to G-d. Why is that?[2]

Cry or Smile
Several weeks ago, I posted a simple message on my Facebook page, asking, “Why cry when you can smile?” Some of the responses were enthusiastic, but others were more hesitant. They mentioned that it is a difficult to smile during COVID-19 and that it is best to be authentic to our true feelings. Others pointed out that crying can be cathartic and sometimes it is good to cry.

King Solomon taught that there is indeed a time to cry and a time to laugh.[3] When tears are in order, they are appropriate and even cathartic. For example, the holy Rabbi Yitschak Luria wrote that one who does not cry at least once during Rosh Hashanah has an incomplete soul. If we pause to think about our lofty soul that was forced to depart the heavenly heights, where it basked in the lap of the Divine, to descend to this lowly world filled with decadence and divisiveness, how can we not cry?[4]

Such tears are true, not false. But, says King Solomon, tears are not for every day. There is a time to cry and a time to laugh. When we are first confronted with overwhelming news, we often go numb. This is the body’s protective mechanism to ensure that we don’t wash away in the tide of emotions. But with time, the numbness lifts and the emotions begin to arise within us. They are still too powerful to express in words, so they are expressed in action. If they are deeply distressful, they overflow and spill out in tears. If they are elating and uplifting, they burst out in smiles and laughter.

Tears and smiles are both safety valves that allow us to release the intensity of our emotions. Once the tension eases, we can process the feelings in our hearts and minds and begin to put them into words. It is, therefore, true that tears are cathartic and helpful when we are in the grip of intense distress.

Mind Over Heart
Nevertheless, Judaism teaches that there is a key distinction between the human and the animal. The human stands upright with the head above the heart whereas animals stand horizontally with the head and heart on the same level. The message is that the human mind can control emotion. We are not powerless and adrift on the tide of our emotions. We can (with effort) turn them on and off.

Some emotions are appropriate, and others are not. Appropriate emotions should be processed and released in a timely and healthy way. For example, the Torah provides us with seven days to mourn the dead because it is important to process our grief. But it is equally important not to wallow in these emotions. When seven days are over, we urge ourselves forward and reengage in life. Whether we are emotionally ready to engage the world or not, we assert the mind over the heart and move forward.

That is when the emotion is appropriate. What if the emotions are inappropriate? What if you covet your neighbor’s car? What if you hate your business competitor? What if you lust for someone you should not be with? What if you brood over a bruised ego? What if you are depressed over fake news as our ancestors were in the desert. Should we surrender to these emotions and vent them?

If we allow them expression, we validate them and grant them a measure of control. If we journey down the treacherous road of inappropriate emotions, we might find ourselves caught in their grip and powerless to resist. We might envelop ourselves in a blanket of self-pity and allow ourselves to indulge.

This brings us back to the tears in the desert. That the Jews accepted the fake news over G-d’s word was a terrible sin. That they chose to indulge their feelings of self-pity and give vent to their pent-up fears, was even worse. By crying false tears that night, they chose to create genuine angst when there was nothing to be anxious about. They should have exercised control and not succumbed to their feelings. That is the hallmark of a human.

Active or Passive
There is one more reason to laugh rather than cry. It is because a good mood and positive disposition are conducive to proactiveness. Brooding and sadness, and how much more so tears and depression, trigger passivity and lethargy. When we brood, we don’t want to get up and do anything. This feeds on itself and a single moment of sadness can lead to days or weeks of inactivity.

This brings us back to my Facebook post. Should we cry or smile during COVID-19? It highly depends on what makes you sad. If you have a genuine reason to be sad, have a good cry with a set time for a beginning and end. Allow yourself a healthy cathartic release and then move forward deliberately.

If you are brooding over fears and concerns about the future, put on the breaks because those feelings will just slow you down. When we slow down, our fears take on a life of their own and become our reality. Such worries are best discarded by asserting control of the mind over the heart. Devote less energy to worry and more energy to action. Trust that G-d hasn’t and won’t abandon you. Be proactive with confidence and cheer and eventually everything will fall into place.

[1] Sotah 49a.

[2] Rabbi Yehudah Lowe (Netsach Yisrael chapter 8) explains that the tears indicated they did not consider Israel their homeland and, thus, it could not remain the Jewish homeland eternally. Hence the subsequent exiles.

[3] Ecclesiastics 3:4.

[4] Likutei Torah Devarim 55:4.