The Power of Tears

Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30

D'Var Torah By: Marcia A. Zimmerman

Why does the Torah mention the deaths of Nadab and Abihu here in Acharei Mot, when the story of their deaths was told in its entirety in Parashat Sh'mini? What is it that the Torah is trying to teach us through this repetition? The Torah wants us to learn the power of our tears.

In the immediate aftermath of Aaron's sons' deaths, the Torah says: "And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, 'Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community'" (Leviticus 10:6). On the other hand, the Zohar asserts, "If a person grieves and sheds tears for the death of Aaron's two sons God announces, 'Your sin has left and your iniquity has been atoned for' [Isaiah 6:7]" (Magriso, 332). This raises an interesting question: how can our tears be a source of atonement when God did not allow Aaron to mourn his own sons?

Even though the Torah forbids Aaron's family to mourn, the Rabbis cannot bear this prohibition. In Vayikra Rabbah we learn of Elisheva bat Aminadav, Aaron's wife and the mother of these two men, mourning her sons' deaths despite the Torah's decree:

Elisheva bat Aminadav did not enjoy happiness in the world. True, she witnessed five crowns (attained by her relatives) in one day: her brother-in-law (Moses) was a king, her brother (Nachson) was a prince, her husband (Aaron) was High Priest, her two sons were both Deputy High Priests, Phinehas her grandson was a priest anointed for war. But when her sons entered to offer incense and were burnt, her joy was changed to mourning. Thus it is, "after the death of the two sons of Aaron." (Vayikra Rabbah 20:2)

How can one not mourn a child, regardless of the circumstances of the death? For any one of us who has counseled a parent after losing a child, it is a wound forever opened. It is the world turned upside down and out of order, no matter the age of the child.

Elisheva bat Aminadav teaches us the power of expressing your sadness, when the world, and even God, seem to be telling you to deny your grief.

Tears seem to get a bad name in this parashah, but I am here to advocate on their behalf. Crying is about being vulnerable, and we, especially today, are afraid to be present to our feelings of sadness and grief. Just turn on the television and you will be bombarded with any number of medications that can take your sadness away. What we have forgotten is that sadness and grief are great teachers: they help us better understand ourselves and the world around us. And if we are unable to feel sad about our own lives, we will never feel empathy toward the pain of others.

Shlomo Carlebach states that Noah was punished after the Flood because he never cried over the lack of repentance of humankind. Noah's inability to cry brought negative consequences upon him and his family. Noah's tears might have had the power to cause his generation to repent.

There is a lot to cry out about in our world today. Crying can ease our own individual hurts. But we must also learn to shed tears at the growing rate of poverty; at the mantra of "no new taxes," which comes at the expense of a caring society; and at the way people's private lives and sexual orientation are used to distract us from the real problems our country faces.

Crying is part of the natural order of expressing human emotions. It is even scientifically proven that shedding tears of emotion is essential to one's health. In Crying: the Mystery of Tears, Dr. William H. Frey teaches us:

Emotional tearing may be similar to the other excretory processes, which remove waste products or toxic materials from the body. My formal study of crying began with the theory that emotional tears play a precise and central role in helping restore the chemical balance of the body by excreting substances produced by the body in response to stress. . . . Our studies on the chemical composition of tears have revealed that tears contain higher concentrations of manganese. (William H. Frey, Crying: The Mystery of Tears [Winston Press, 1985], pp.12-13)

According to Dr. Frey, crying is one of the ways our bodies find their equilibrium. When we do not cry out, we are denying our humanity. While withholding feelings is bad for our health, our discomfort with emotions often stops us from fully expressing them.

Therefore, in Acharei Mot, the Torah draws attention to Nadab and Abihu's deaths to give Aaron another chance to cry out, to mourn, to shed tears. And though he misses the opportunity once more, surely another circumstance will present itself in the future. Life continually confronts us with situations that invite us to work through issues that are the most difficult and painful for us. What I have found is that pain is very patient-it will wait for you. You can't go over it, around it, or under it; you have to go through it, in order to move on and heal. So just cry it out, and let the tears flow.


  • Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe who with wisdom fashioned the human body, creating openings, arteries, glands and organs, marvelous in structure, intricate in design. Should but one of them, by being blocked or opened, fail to function, it would be impossible to exist. Praised are You, Lord, healer of all flesh who sustains our bodies in wondrous ways. (Siddur Sim Shalom, ed. Rabbi Jules Harlow [New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, The United Synagogue of America, 1985], p. 7)
  • The word zot in Leviticus 16:3 teaches that through the merit of all the above mentioned things, the High Priest was allowed to enter a place as sacred as the Holy of Holies. The Hebrew word for "with this" is be-zot. This alludes to the fact that the first Temple was destined to last for 410 years. The numerical value of be-zot is 410. Similarly, the word kadosh meaning holy, has a numerical value of 410. Also the word sh'ma has a numerical value of 410. (Yitzchok Magriso, The Torah Anthology, Me'Am Lo'ez, volume 11, trans. Aryeh Kaplan [New York: Moznaim Publishing Corporation, 1989], p. 336)
  • 21. and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites [Lev. 16:21]. The verb hitvaddah, from the root y-d-h (or v-d-h), means "to reveal oneself" and connotes the opposite of concealment. Originally, the confessional enumerated the various sins in order to expose them. Once isolated in this wayidentified by namethe sins could be exorcised. Ancient peoples believed that sinfulness, like impurity, was an external force that had clung to them; it was necessary therefore, to "drive out," or detach, sins. This view is expressed in the literal wording of an ancient prayer preserved in Psalms 65:4: "All sorts of sins have overwhelmed me: it is you, O Lord, who will wipe them away!" (Baruch A Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989], p. 106)


  1. How does our understanding of the traditional Morning Blessings change if we pray specifically for our tears to flow as a way of praising God?
  2. Magriso discusses how the word kadosh, "holiness," is connected to the word sh'ma, "listen," through g'matria. Given that, how can listening to our own emotionsgood and badbe a holy endeavor?
  3. If the word hitvaddah means to reveal oneself and is connected to the Yom Kippur practice, how do tears allow us to reveal ourselves in order to bring us toward t'shuvah, the act of repentance?

Marcia A. Zimmerman is senior rabbi at Temple Israel, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Reference Materials

Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1–18:30
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 858–888; Revised Edition, pp. 769–794; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 679–700

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