The girl was already sitting at the bus stop when I seated myself beside her. Giving her a brief glance, I began searching in my bag for my bus card, which I like to have ready before the bus makes its appearance.
With that little detail taken care of, I glanced at the girl again, as one stranger may unobtrusively peek at another. Neatly dressed, with smooth dark hair in a ponytail, she looked about eighteen, probably one of the students attending the local seminary nearby.
Then, to my dismay, I realized this young girl was silently crying. Her shoulders shook as tears streamed down her doleful face.
My first instinct as a mother was to reach out and comfort her. If I knew this girl, I would have placed my arm around her shoulders. But she was a complete stranger. I had never seen her before in our neighborhood. Why was she sobbing like this? I didn’t want to intrude on her grief but could sense her pain.
Most probably this girl was homesick. Perhaps for the first time, she was away from her own home and family for an extended period, longing for familiar places and faces. Or possibly something more painful may have caused her tears. She might have received a message from home that a beloved grandparent was very ill and not likely to recover. And she was here, thousands of miles away, feeling helpless and hopeless.
I felt conflicted. Should I say something – anything – to this girl and openly acknowledge her grief? Would she feel better to speak to someone, even a complete stranger, about her private sorrow or might she feel even more uncomfortable?
Then I realized there was one small, simple gesture I could offer her. Pulling a couple of tissues from my bag, I hesitantly placed them in the girl’s hand. For a second I feared she might resent my intrusion. But she gratefully accepted my tissues, even giving me a tiny nod of thanks before mopping her tear-streaked face and swollen eyes.
A moment later, my bus arrived and I climbed on but the girl remained behind at the bus stop. She might have been waiting for a bus bound for a different destination or possibly not taking bus at all. Perhaps she had found the bus stop as a refuge for her tears, away from all the other girls at the seminary.
I could not forget my encounter with the sad stranger that day. Later, back at home, I decided to research this common yet mysterious phenomenon of shedding tears. I learned that tears are produced in response to strong emotions from stress, anger, sadness, suffering or physical pain. Tears often result from our deepest sorrow. When the pain becomes unbearable, the heart is overburdened, and tears flow from our eyes. Tears of sadness can also touch others, as I had personally experienced. Since grief comes from within, it may enter the inner being of others. When we can no longer bear sorrow and anger, our tears flow out. Streams of tears assure us that people have deep feelings and can even create a bond between strangers.
Then I recalled a long-ago visit to the Kotel when an old lady had stood weeping beside me. After all, there is no more appropriate place than the often-referred to Wailing Wall.
Seeing the old woman’s time-worn face pressed against the smooth ancient stones, I speculated about the cause of her tears. Was she weeping for our destroyed Beis haMikdash and the long painful years of our galus which hasn’t yet reached its end? Or was she crying for something more personal such as a suffering family member or close friend in distress?
David HaMelech was very familiar with the shedding of tears. In tehillim he says, “I cause my bed to swim all night long; / With my tears I dissolve my couch.” At that time he was experiencing great adversity in his life yet his tears were precious to Hashem. Whenever David encountered difficulties, he wept before Hashem and achieved greatness through his tears.
We are all longing for the time when Hashem will wipe away our tears, a loving gesture filled with empathy. The one who wipes the tears does not remain at an emotionally safe distance but is close by, comforting the one who weeps, sharing her pain. The concept that Hashem will wipe away our tears reminds us of His loving presence in our lives.
I haven’t seen that sad young lady at the bus stop since that day. Even so, before leaving the house, I make sure to put a handful of tissues in my bag.
This article first appeared in the Jewish Press.