December 10, 2019

Tears in a Bottle

In a cabinet in my synagogue’s foyer is a small glass bottle with two openings. It is an object from around 100 C.E. which caught and held the tears of those who mourned the destruction of the Temple. According to a legend, it was believed that the Messiah would come when the bottle was filled.

That the tears of the suffering matters to God is indicated by Psalm 56:9, which says: “You have counted up my tears in a bottle.” Those tears have bearing on the yearning of the rabbis to articulate a new way of drawing close to God after the destruction of the Temple and the loss of its cultic technology of sacrifice. It also describes prayer to us in an evocative and unstructured way. The need to express the suffering those tears revealed is a theme that runs throughout the examination of prayer in rabbinic literature with the transformation of Hebrew religious life and the emergence of prayer — “the service of the heart” (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 2a).

Midrash and Talmud sought to answer the question: What is “prayer of the heart”? What makes prayer work? Pursuing these topics, they turned to this week’s parasha, Vaetchanan, in which Moses implored God to annul the decree forbidding him from entering the Promised Land. The rabbis were apparently concerned because Moses’ prayer was not answered. They sought to know why the prayer of one as great as Moses should be unrewarded and assumed that the fault must somehow have been in the nature of Moses’ request. In exploring what was wrong with Moses’ request, they give us a vocabulary for understanding their view of prayer and teach us how to use prayer to cope with our own trauma.

Deuteronomy Rabbah’s Midrash on Parashat Vaetchanan initially questions Moses’ voice tone, indicating that perhaps Moses cried out too loudly, comparing him with Hannah, the paragon representative of prayer of the heart, who spoke softly, “praying in her heart; only her lips moved, her voice could not be heard” (1 Samuel 1:13).

The timing of prayer was also seen as important. The rabbis drew from scripture the understanding of the need to pray at three precise times a day, established by the three patriarchs. So Moses might not have prayed the proper number of times a day or at the right time. He might also have failed to accompany his plea with a suitable accolade. They remark, based on the example of King Solomon, that some sort of adoration must accompany prayers of petition.

But most significantly, the Midrash examining this parasha offers a description of the inner experience of prayer, revealing that “if a man directs his heart to his prayer he may be confident that his prayer will be answered.” This focus, known as kavanah, is best described by the greatest gift of this Midrash, in which Rabbi Johanan reveals his understanding of prayer of the heart. He gives 10 synonyms for prayer. Many of them are words used in the biblical description of the emotional state of the Hebrews trapped in the depths of slavery: cry, lament, groan, sing, encounter, trouble, call, fall, pray and supplicate.

Rabbi Johanan’s description of prayer empowers us to give voice to our deepest yearnings as a way of reaching out to God. Examining these 10 words may not get Moses over to the Promised Land or convince us that justice was done to Moshe Rabenu, but it reveals an understanding of prayer as an expressive technique. It illustrates, with biblical pictures, our ancestors at prayer and gives us precise images of prayer with kavanah. 

These words appear in some of the most passionate expressions of yearning depicted in the Bible, as our ancestors, in moments of profound vulnerability turned to God in their anguish and cried out. They include not only the cries of the children of Israel from the depths of slavery, they also echo Job as he described the depth of feeling with which he would need to express “the anguish of my spirit in the bitterness of my soul” (Job 7:11). We hear King Saul’s plea for God’s mercy as Saul flung himself prone on the ground (1 Samuel 28:20). We see the terrified Judah with his brothers as they entered the house of Joseph and fell to the ground (Genesis 43:18); Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the great fish (Jonah 2:2); and Queen Esther, as she lay at her husband’s feet, begging for mercy for herself and her people (Esther 8:3). With these role models for the prayers of our hearts, we are given permission to pour out our tears and offer them to God, and know that these deeply personal expressions are counted as prayer, just as Psalm 56 affirms, that God counts our tears in a bottle.

Rabbi Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist and spiritual counselor. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001). She teaches at the Academy for Jewish Religion and is on the board of the L.A. Community Mikveh and Education Center. Rabbi Brener is a member of Temple Israel of Hollywood and can be reached at