When studying prayer, you’ll discover that Chazal use metaphors of “Gates” when discussing how prayer works. Anecdotally, the final prayer of Yom Kippur is called Neila – “Closing”. The gates of Heaven that open for Yom Kippur are closing, and we seize the opportunity to squeeze one final prayer in. The Gemara in Brachos says that the gates of prayer do not always stay open, but one does: the Gate of Tears. It never closes because crying is the potent form of prayer; it is invariably genuine and sincere.
But if it never closes, why is there a Gate at all? It’s just an open space!
Rabbi Moshe Sherer suggests that a Gate is required, because not all tears are equal. When Balak and Bilam schemed to entrap the Jews in immorality and licentiousness, they sent the young women of Midian into the Jewish camp to seduce the men, and there was not much resistance. Society collapsed, and this set off a plague. Right in the middle of the plague, with his brethren dying around him, one callous fellow, Zimri, also a senior member of Jewish government, was more brazen than anyone else:
וְהִנֵּה אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּא, וַיַּקְרֵב אֶל-אֶחָיו אֶת-הַמִּדְיָנִית, לְעֵינֵי מֹשֶׁה, וּלְעֵינֵי כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. וַיַּרְא, פִּינְחָס בֶּן-אֶלְעָזָר, בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן, הַכֹּהֵן; וַיָּקָם מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה, וַיִּקַּח רֹמַח בְּיָדוֹ. וַיָּבֹא אַחַר אִישׁ-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-הַקֻּבָּה, וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת-שְׁנֵיהֶם–אֵת אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-הָאִשָּׁה אֶל-קֳבָתָהּ; וַתֵּעָצַר, הַמַּגֵּפָה, מֵעַל, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – A Jewish man approached, and paraded the Midianite woman before Moshe’s eyes, and before the eyes of all the people, and they were crying at the doors of the of the Mishkan. Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Ahron HaKohen saw this, and took up a spear… He approached the group and pierced the two of them… And the plague stopped. (25:6-8)
Clearly not all the Jews were involved. Unsure what to do, they went to Moshe and the then-holiest spot on the planet to cry and pray – וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. These Jews who were strong enough to stand up the temptation of Midianite promiscuity; asked for help, and did not get it. The Torah clearly states that his assassination of the provocateurs stopped the plague, not their prayers. God attests to this by saying הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי – the Jews prayers are a non-factor, written off completely. Why weren’t their prayers answered, considering that tears are the most sincere form of prayer?
The Kotzker Rebbe says that the reason there is a “Gate” of Tears is because tears don’t work when it’s a time for action. They are crocodile tears – they are not “tears” at all. If circumstances call for action, being “religious” may not be enough.