Years ago, while studying for my doctorate in psychology, as part of a class I took in the biological bases of behavior, I presented a report on “Shedding Tears: A Uniquely Human Behavior.”
I have since discovered that not much more is known about the subject now than was known back in my graduate school days. We still know little about the correlation between tears and mood improvement and the significance of the fact that crying for emotional reasons seems to be unique to humans.
The connection of this issue to Vayetzei is through these remarkable verses: “Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes, and Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance.”
There is ample precedent for the Bible’s accentuating Rachel’s beauty — Rebecca and Sarah are both described as beautiful — but why are we told that Leah’s eyes are weak? Is this facial feature of hers a blemish? And if so, why mention it?
Rashi says: “Leah supposed she was destined to marry Esau, hence she shed tears. She heard people say that Rebecca had two sons and Laban two daughters. Surely, the older daughter will marry the older son, the younger daughter the younger son.” This assumption — that she was to marry the wicked Esau — troubled her greatly, and she cried until her tears disfigured her face.
Hasidic masters interpreted the difference between Rachel’s beauty and Leah’s imperfection as symbolic of two types of moral heroines, Rachel representing the perfect tzadeket, Leah the person who overcomes obstacles and experiences setbacks in her struggle to become a tzadeket.
This view of tears — as an essential component of moral triumph — is found time and again in King David’s Psalms. I n 42, we read: “Like a hind crying for water, my soul cries for You, O God…. My tears have been my food day and night; I am ever taunted with, ‘Where is your God?’”
In Psalm 56, we learn that the Almighty even preserves tears: “You keep count of my wanderings; You put my tears into Your flask, into Your record,” and in 126 that “they who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy.”
Leah’s weak eyes are not a physical defect; her tears are emblems of her moral strivings. Her tears are not signs of weakness; rather, they encompass her strength of character.
Charles Dickens seems to have understood this. In Great Expectations he writes, “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears…. I was better after I had cried than before — more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.”
But I choose to conclude with this talmudic teaching on Rabbi Elazar, found in Berachot 32b: “[D]espite the fact that the gates of prayer were locked, the gates of tears were never locked, as it is stated: ‘Hear my prayer, Lord, and give ear to my pleading, keep not silence at my tears.’ (Psalms 39:13)”