For most of my life, I never saw crying as an expected, positive, or even necessary part of life—not to mention something one would ever do in front of other people. I always thought crying was, well, shameful. At best, a sign of weakness and deficiency; at worst, a symptom of immaturity and petulance. It conjured an image of a weepy, sniffling adolescent girl, lower lip jutting out, mascara smeared under swollen eyes, whining about her latest dating flop or her inability to find the perfect pair of stilettos.

However, several life experiences have since changed my perspective on crying.

I always thought crying was, well, shamefulOne occurred about one year ago, when I found myself sitting across from someone who was to become a great teacher and mentor of mine. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a tissue box decorated like an arts-and-crafts project with yellow construction paper and the words “Survival Kit” emblazoned on each side. That’s odd, I thought. But I surmised that this was some kind of inside joke to which I was clearly not privy, and I promptly shrugged it off.

Sure enough, during our occasional subsequent meetings (which came about for reasons which ran the gamut from technical questions, to existential crises, to personal crises, to philosophical crises) this person would sometimes nonchalantly take the box of tissues or a roll of toilet paper and put it on the desk, right smack in front of me. Not in a condescending or mocking way, but just as if to say, “Don’t be embarrassed if you start crying. Emotions are healthy. Crying is just an expression of the soul.”

Touchy-feely? Yeah. Stereotypical? Definitely. But as soon as I let my guard down, I was surprisingly comforted. Until now, I had been completely immersed in a culture and a society in which women are pressured to stifle their emotions and made to feel embarrassed for expressing them. Suddenly, if I cried for whatever reason, I was not seen as crazy or hysterical or overly emotional. In fact, I was seen as having a unique gift: the strength and capacity to become in touch with the deepest parts of myself, my very essence, something that it seems men have a much harder time accessing. As silly as it may seem, the tissue box was kind of an epiphany for me.

Recalling this incident reminds me of an incredible woman who lived three thousand years ago. Her name was Chana. Chana poured her heart out to G‑d, begging Him to go against the natural course of the world and grant her a son, whom she promised in return to dedicate to the service of G‑d. She was so unconstrained in her emotional expression that Eli, the High Priest, was sure she was drunk:

Eli said to Chana, “For how long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Sober up!”

And Chana replied: “Oh no, my lord! I am a very unhappy woman. I have drunk no wine or other strong drink, but I have been pouring out my heart to the L‑rd. Do not take your maidservant for a worthless woman; I have only been speaking all this time out of my great anguish and distress.”

“Then go in peace,” said Eli, “and may the G‑d of Israel grant you what you have asked of Him.”

Chana teaches us something fundamental: prayer is not about saying the words. It’s not about prayerbooks or synagogues. Prayer is an act of pouring out one’s soul, an act that in many ways requires irrationality, boundless emotion, and yes, even shedding tears. The rabbis were so impressed with her that they later modeled the central prayer of the Amidah, or Shemoneh Esrei, after her prayer. Even our guidelines for how to pray come from Chana—for example, the fact that that prayer is a quiet act; that one should move one’s lips but still be able to hear oneself; that prayer is done by pouring out one’s soul to G‑d; and that if you pray hard enough, you can actually affect G‑d's will (!).

I was seen as having a unique gift: the strength and capacity to become in touch with the deepest parts of myself, my very essenceInterestingly, when it comes to the realm of prayer, men are enjoined to develop profound sensitivity and feelings, all things which are generally associated with femininity. It is quite natural for a woman to get in touch with her deepest emotions, to admit her needs, to express her vulnerability. These things are often unnatural for a man, even when under the conscience-altering influences of alcohol.

To us, the idea that men are taught to look to the woman in order to understand how to pray seems completely counterintuitive. Especially in the context of a society in which women’s liberation often means acting like men. And especially in a world in which most Jews have the misconception that according to traditional Judaism, prayer is a realm that belongs primarily, or even entirely, to men. However, it seems that the primary reason that men are given so many rules and timeframes and qualifications when it comes to prayer is simply because men are generally more structure-oriented; thus, they are more connected to the physical sanctuary itself and to fixed times and guidelines for prayer. Women often find G‑d when we are driving, doing the dishes, walking down the street, etc. To put it another way, man’s strength is channeling spirituality into the mundane, while woman’s strength is unleashing the spirituality in the mundane.

While man goes to the sanctuary, woman is the sanctuary. Although that means we are more vulnerable, it also gives us tremendous power.

And despite what society might have us believe, our tendency to express emotion is a treasure—one that a woman should never devalue, but rather use as fuel for a deep connection with her Creator.

Tissue, anyone?