The Tzemach Tzedek told Reb Hendel, when he came for private counsel: "Learning Zohar lifts up the soul. Learning Midrash wakes up the heart. Tehillim with tears washes out the person that holds this heart and this soul.”

—Hayom Yom, 16 Tevet.

One Precious Tear

It was perhaps the most confusing month of my life, when I felt more lost, more out of place than at any other time.

We were eight student artists, musicians, poets and actors, touring in a single Volkswagen van through northern British Columbia in the month of May, visiting secondary schools on a federal grant to bring the arts to the children of lumberjacks and miners. We slept on gymnasium floors, in makeshift tents and even right there in the van, all of us together, the crazy bunch we were.

I had never lived in such close contact with people outside my family before—every day for every hour of the day. But instead of closeness, I felt so different from them. Perhaps each of us felt so different from each other.

There was friendship, but it could explode in anger in a moment. There were times for fun and celebration together—but they could suddenly transform into So it was that one morning I rose earlier than the rest from the school’s gymnasium floor, I showered, and in that shower I perceived that I must speak to G‑d.frustration and coldness with a single, simple gesture. And the meaning of the other’s words—you never knew whether they were innocent packets of meaning or arrows intended to hurt.

So it was that one morning I rose earlier than the rest from the school’s gymnasium floor, I showered, and in that shower I perceived that I must speak to G‑d.

I had spoken with G‑d many years back as a child. I had asked Him to make the sun shine the next day so I could ride my bike. I had asked him to quiet the angry voices around me that bit so hard. When I was lost, I relied on Him to show me the way, and when I was lonely, I knew He was there with me.

But at some point, as I strove to become a man that did all the things that men did, I had left Him behind, so that for some time now we had not spoken a word. We were apart.

And now I needed to talk with Him once again, after this long, much too long, time of silence between us.

I dressed. Then I attempted to pour out my heart in words.

But the words were artificial, the sort of words a literature major might compose. They came not from my soul, not from my heart, but out of the chatter in my brain, or devised by the calculated notions of my mind.

So I decided I needed no words. I sang—as I used to sing as an adolescent, just allowing the melodies to come, freeing my heart to rise through my breath to my lips.

But the tunes were false, the work of the student of music composition I was, the voice of a trained vocalist.

Until I lost it. I crumpled to the ground in frustration. Here I was in the close company of seven others my age with no one I could speak to, no one I could ask to help me understand, and all I wanted was to speak to the G‑d of my youth—and even that was stolen from me. It was an unbearable pain, like the pain of a man lost in an endless maze as the sun goes down and all hope for rescue is abandoned—so I was imprisoned in my own insincerity, my internal dissonance, in my incapacity to be real, to release my inner pain.

I looked at my bare fist and there glistened a tear. Just a single tear.

But that was enough. Because I didn’t remember crying. I hadn’t tried to cry—I didn’t want to, and certainly I didn’t want anyone to find me crying. So I knew this tear must be real. That one alone. For any tear that came after would be a conscious tear, and therefore the manufacture of my hijacked mind.

Soon after, I left the group and hitchhiked back home, taking my time, often alone on mountain trails, or sleeping at the side of the road. It was in the summer months that followed that I found my way towards a wholesome life as a Jew, keeping Shabbat, eating kosher, and—eventually—studying in a yeshiva.

All is a single journey with a single goal. There is a fountain from which that teardrop emerged. I am seeking that fountain. I want to commune in all earnestness, from the depths of my heart, with my G‑d.

Over the years, every once in a long while, as I recite those words of Tehillim which by now roll smoothly from my lips, on some rare occasion I discover that these are the words of my soul, the words I so much wanted to say but could not find.

And a tear may appear, from where I do not yet know.

Tehillim and the Jew

How does it feel to be a Jew?

We journey through life as a Jew, knowing that we are Jews, thinking Jewish, acting Jewish. But this Jewishness of ours, if we could somehow surgically isolate it, touch it and squish it between our fingers—of course, in some metaphorical sense—how would it feel?

We can know how it feels to think as a Jew. At its origin and its quintessence it is what it meant to think as a Jew for millennia—to soak your mind in the ancient, living waters of Torah, to resonate with the rhythm of the sing-song debates of the Jewish sages, and to wrestle with the soul-gripping conflicts of our beliefs as have Jewish souls since Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

So too, we can know how it feels to act as a Jew. We need look no further than our celebration of every mitzvah and passage of life, our delight in giving and helping out another soul as Abraham and Sarah felt when hosting the wayfarers, the joy of dancing with a Torah on Simchat Torah as David danced before the Ark of G‑d, the sense of timelessness within time as we crunch yet another matzah on Passover together with our forefathers who left Egypt, the warmth and security of just being together as Jews on our festivals and in our places of worship as our grandparents did, and theirs before them.

But how does it feel, this Jewish soul? How does it feel when it emerges to the surface raw and exposed, when it releases all the love, all the pain, all the outrage, and all the passion welled up inside, when its very essence is squeezed out and drips warmly onto our hand like pure oil squeezed from an olive?

When is a Jewish soul squeezed tightly? In prayer.

Most of the prayers of a Jew, those compiled in the daily and festival prayer books, are either taken from or based upon the psalms composed and collected by David, “sweet singer of Israel.”

David spilled his heart out before his Creator as a man to his closest confidante, as a wife to her husband, as a lover to his beloved, as a child to his father and to his mother—as every relationship that is close and intimate, all wrapped together as an inextricable whole. As we breathe our own lives into his words, so do we:

“I rise to the heavens—there You are! I descend to the depths—You again! I will take the wings of the morning, I will dwell at the end of the seas. Even there Your hand will rest upon me, and Your right hand shall embrace me.”

In his Tehillim, David bares the frailest, most vulnerable elements of his soul—and so do we:

“I am a worm, not a man, a disgrace of a human being.”

“I seem weird to my brothers, a stranger among my people.”

“My father and mother have abandoned me. But G‑d takes me in.”

As his verse explodes in uncontainable wonder and exuberant joy, we exclaim along with him:

“How many are Your works, oh G‑d! You made all of them with such wisdom! The entire world is Yours!”

“Fire and hail! Snow and fuming smoke! A stormy wind that does His word!”

“Every breathing thing praises You!”

Abraham brought G‑d to humankind. Moses brought G‑d to earth in His Torah. But David, says the Book of Splendor, bonded the Torah of Moses with the G‑d of Abraham so that within its words and teachings we can feel our beloved G‑d speaking to us, and we speak back to Him.

To be able, on a moment’s notice, to pour out our hearts to our G‑d, and to speak with our Maker more intimately than we would speak to any mortal being—there at its very quintessence is what it feels like to be a Jew.