Tonight my first-born, Chanan, is getting married at a breathtaking site overlooking the Judean Desert, not far from our home in Jerusalem. My wife and I are thrilled with his bride, friends and relatives have flown in for the first wedding of his generation in our family, and we have every reason to be joyous.
A hallowed Jewish tradition, however, tells us that at the moment of greatest happiness, just after the marriage ceremony is completed, a glass is broken as a reminder of the destruction of ancient Jerusalem. Even though it is the capital of a flourishing Jewish state today, the city has not been fully rebuilt and our joy is imperfect. The broken glass, as I understand it, symbolizes not only the sorrow we feel that our sovereignty is partial and lasting security still a dream, but also a healthy Jewish skepticism about whether “perfect happiness” is attainable or even desirable. Pure bliss risks blinding us to the very real problems in this world. So when we are at our most ecstatic, we summon the piercing sound of shattered glass to make sure we are not seduced by the fantasy of entering the Garden of Eden, and do not forget the challenges of life on earth.
Tonight, though, we do not really need to break a glass. Each of us is carrying the tragic feeling of young lives cut short, of a fallen soldier to whom we feel connected as a relative, friend, neighbor, or fellow Israeli or Jew. My broken glass has a name, and it is Hadar Goldin.
I never met Hadar, but from the moment last Friday I heard he had been kidnapped by Hamas in an attack in which two of his fellow soldiers were killed, I was struck by the sense that “There but for the grace of God go I”— that he could have been my son. That sense was only heightened on Saturday night, when it was reported that in fact he had been killed along with his comrades. Hadar was close to Chanan’s age. Both come from religious Zionist homes and were born to parents who moved to Israel from English-speaking countries. Both have fathers who are academics with a strong interest in Jewish history. My son grew up in the town of Eli in the shade of the Bnei David pre-army preparatory academy; Hadar became one of its exemplary graduates, and friends and fellow soldiers described him as deeply committed to his nation and keenly sensitive to the needs of those around him. Both served in the Givati infantry unit, though Hadar opted to stay on and become an officer. Both were engaged to be married in the coming weeks, but there the difference becomes sharply painful. As I write these words, my son’s kallah is making final preparations for her wedding. Hadar’s fiancée is with the Goldin family in Kfar Sava sitting shiva for a husband whose companionship she will never enjoy.
At Chanan’s wedding I will sing, dance, feast, and share my joy with friends and family. But I doubt I will attain the kind of unbridled happiness I had always expected, as part of me is bound up with Hadar, and all the other Hadars who fell. That part of me will still be at the shiva visit my oldest daughter and I made to the Goldins on Tisha B’Av earlier this week, along with hundreds of other Israelis seeking to relieve in some small way the family’s terrible pain. I am hardly alone, as what I am feeling is a reflection of the saying “Kol Yisrael Arevim zeh l’zeh,” all Jews are responsible for one another. That connection has been felt with extraordinary power in recent weeks, not because Israelis have sought to live up to this Talmudic phrase but because we have instinctively embodied it. In expressing our joy tonight, but mixing it with the sadness of knowing that others are mourning, we will be making a profoundly Jewish wedding.
Despite the sadness inside, we will hold the most vibrant celebration we can, not only because my son and daughter-in-law deserve to be surrounded tonight by well-wishers performing the mitzvah of helping them rejoice, but because as Jews we recognize that we must seize whatever moments of joy we can, knowing they won’t last forever and are therefore to be cherished all the more. We will celebrate with all our hearts because choosing life, with all its opportunities for happiness, is the most fundamental commandment. And we will celebrate because Hadar, and all those who fought with him, did so to defend a way of life in which we could build families, communities, and a whole nation dedicated to that commandment.
This past Shabbat was my son’s Shabbat Chatan and in keeping with the tradition he read the Haftarah, a long passage from one of the books of the prophets. Though an experienced reader, Chanan faced a real challenge, as the Haftarah read on the Sabbath before Tisha B’Av is the only one in which the reader must switch mid-way between the regular melody for chanting, which to my ears is a joyous one, and the mournful tones used for Eichah, the Book of Lamentations—not once, but four times. This is technically difficult, as the melodies do not readily blend from one to the other, but it symbolically expresses an even greater challenge: To lead a life in which our moments of greatest joy are accompanied by an appreciation for the pain others experience, and in which we look for opportunities to celebrate when life is at its darkest.
Tonight, overlooking the Judean desert, we will sing the most enduring of all wedding songs, “Od Yishama,” from the 33rd chapter of the Book of Jeremiah. The words are from a prophecy Jeremiah receives while Jerusalem is under siege from the Babylonians, who are destined to sack it and send its inhabitants into exile.
From the pit in which he was held, Jeremiah was somehow able to see a glorious future in which the Jewish people would return to their land, and he shared this vision with all the naysayers within earshot: “Again there shall be heard in this place, which you say shall be desolate without man and without beast, even in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem, that are desolate, without man, and without inhabitant, and without beast, the voice of joy, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride.” In this most Jewish of prophecies he saw joy while those around him were cloaked in despair, and in so doing provided the soundtrack for our celebrations two and a half millennia later, when we have returned to Israel and filled the streets of Jerusalem and the cities of Judah with song. So tonight we shall raise a glass, and break a glass, and celebrate the good fortune of the blessed young couple and the wonders of life in the revitalized Jewish state.