Parashat Shelah- The Halachot of Crying
Parashat Shelah tells the tragic story of the Meragelim, the spies that Moshe sent to explore Eretz Yisrael in advance of the nation’s entry into the land. The spies returned with a negative report, and discouraged Beneh Yisrael from proceeding into the land. The night after the spies’ return, the nation wept, lamenting the fate that awaited them. God punished Beneh Yisrael for their response to the spies. He had promised to bring them to a special land, and they should have thus rejected the spies’ report, rather than accepting it and lamenting their imminent entry into the land. God therefore decreed that this generation would die in the wilderness, and not enter into Eretz Yisrael.
The Rabbis teach us that this tragic episode actually yielded even graver repercussions. This incident occurred on the night of Tisha B’Ab, which, as we know, is a day that has seen numerous catastrophes throughout Jewish history. After Beneh Yisrael spent the night of Tisha B’Ab weeping in response to the spies’ report, God announced, "You cried for naught – I will now establish this night as an occasion of crying for all generations." Sure enough, Tisha B’Ab would later become the day on which both Bateh Mikdash were destroyed, and the day of numerous other tragedies in our history.
God’s response to the people’s weeping presents us with a critical lesson for life. It warns us against crying "for naught." God was angered because of the "Bechiya Shel Hinam," Beneh Yisrael’s unwarranted weeping. They were receiving an unparalleled blessing, a priceless treasure – Eretz Yisrael – and yet they wept, they complained. When people cry "for naught," for no valid reason, God becomes angry, and says, "You’re crying for no reason – I will give you something to cry about," Heaven forbid. If we – like the generation of the spies – reject the gifts God gives us, and cry and complain, then He may likely give us a valid reason to cry.
There are, of course, situations where crying is allowed and even appropriate. When a person loses a relative or close friend, Heaven forbid, crying over the loss is most certainly appropriate. A grieving relative should never be discouraged from crying. Certainly, on the opposite end, shedding tears of joy and gratitude is a perfectly acceptable expression of emotion. And when we pray for our children, we must never feel the need to hold back our tears. God treasures the tears we shed out of concern for the wellbeing of our children, and those tears are very precious.
But there are many other instances of crying that fall into the category of "Bechiya Shel Hinam" – unwarranted crying, when people cry over "problems" that are actually blessings, like Beneh Yisrael’s weeping upon hearing the spies’ report.
I was once summoned to settle a tense dispute between a husband and wife regarding their children’s education. They couldn’t agree over which school to choose for their child, as one spouse wanted a school with stricter religious standards and the other wanted a school with less strict standards. The husband and wife were literally driven to tears by this argument. The question of which school to choose is certainly a crucial and sensitive one, but it does not warrant crying. How many unmarried people, and childless couples, dream about having such an argument! How many parents are there with a gravely ill child, Heaven forbid, who wish they had the luxury of arguing over where to send him to school! Is this something to cry about? Baruch Hashem, this couple had happy, healthy children, and they had the ability to enroll their children in a variety of fine Torah institutions. It is a Beracha to be able to have such an argument! They should have felt blessed to have to make a decision between different Torah schools for their children, notwithstanding the challenge presented by the difference of opinion. Certainly, this is an important question that needs to be discussed and addressed with seriousness. But we have to be very careful what we cry about. If we cry about these "problems," we run the risk of confronting far more serious problems, God forbid.
On another occasion, I was asked to mediate between a husband and wife who were embroiled in a bitter argument over…a couch. The husband did not like the couch the wife chose for their living room. Again, the argument brought them to tears. Baruch Hashem, this couple was able to afford nice furniture. There is no need to cry or lament in this situation. This is a "Bechiya Shel Hinam" – weeping for no reason, bemoaning a situation that is actually a blessing and a gift.
Even with regard to mourning a loved one’s passing, it may surprise some to know that there are Halachot governing crying. Halacha requires gradually decreasing the intensity of bereavement with time, and mourning is to end after the Sheloshim (the first month after the loved one’s passing), or twelve months, in the case of a parent, Heaven forbid. If one continues grieving after this point, the Sages teach us, God becomes angry. It is natural – and obligatory – to cry and mourn for a personal loss, but at a certain point, one must accept God’s decree and move on.
The message of Beneh Yisrael’s "Bechiya Shel Hinam" is that even crying, our emotional response to situations, is governed by Halacha. Overreacting to adversity reflects a lack of appreciation for all we have been given, for the many blessings that God has bestowed upon us. Life is full of challenges, and our job is to confront them to the best of our ability, without crying over or lamenting our condition. We should feel blessed and privileged to have challenges to confront, and must ensure to appreciate our blessings, and give thanks to the Almighty – rather than cry about them.