David Lerner

The Magic of the Jewish Wedding

Labor Day and the end of summer are a time for weddings.  Emunah joyously hosted two aufrufs and two weddings this week.  Yasher koah to our executive director, Raveetal Celine and our Kitchen Chair, Janet Goldberg, for helping to organize these celebrations as well as making our amazing BBQ and Barekhu such a success!

Temple Emunah Courtyard, BBQ & Barekhu, August 30, 2019
Temple Emunah Religious School 7th Grade Mock Wedding

What’s a little bit strange about this morning is that we are celebrating the Bar Mitzvah of a young person whose wedding we already celebrated right on this spot four months ago!  Yes, Nathan Gaffin was married right here back in May in our 7th-grade mock wedding and now, a little out of order, we celebrate his Bar-Mitzvah!

Nathan, you’re a good sport!

So, this Shabbat I want to discuss weddings and marriage.

“Mawwage is wot bwings us togevva today.”  

Scene from The Princess Bride pinned to Pinterest by Wendell Cisco

Sorry, I just always wanted to do that and it was never the right moment…

But on a more serious note, in the Jewish tradition, there is nothing better than a wedding.  It is considered the ultimate simhah, the ultimate joyous occasion!  

We are taught that when we are invited to attend a wedding, we must mesameiah hatan v’khallah – we must bring joy to the groom and bride or to the two partners.

And weddings in America are a big deal – the average family in the U.S. in 2018 spent over $44,000 getting married!  That’s a lot of cake!

But why does Judaism make such a big deal about weddings?

Today, we may choose to have and raise children without a partner, but traditionally, that was not an option. Marriage is seen as the way to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people, especially because Judaism doesn’t proselytize.  Let us not forget that there are only 14 million Jews – less than 1/5 of 1% of the world’s population of over 7 billion. 

There is a second reason: “lo tov heyot adam levado” (Gen 2:18)  – in the beginning of the Torah, God states that “it is not good for a person to be alone.”  Today, we are able to create rich and vibrant lives supported by friends, family and community, but traditionally, Jewish communities emphasized that the way to receive love and support was to be part of a couple.

* * *

So, you may be wondering if weddings are mentioned in this week’s parashah, in this week’s Torah portion?  

Sort of.  

If a couple gets married and there is a way, the groom does not have to go and fight; their new relationship is given priority.

But even more than the Torah reading, weddings are very much connected to this season.  We are in the final month of the year on the Jewish calendar: the month of Elul

What does Elul mean?  Its root is related to the word “to search” in Aramaic. 

A month of searching makes sense in the tradition as this is a month of introspection.  We prepare for the High Holy Days by reciting Selihot, additional prayers for forgiveness, adding Psalm 27, and sounding the shofar each weekday morning at services to awaken us to the process of teshuvah, of repentance and repair.  We do not just ask for forgiveness on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur or during the entire ten-day period they encompass; we utilize the entire month leading up to the High Holy Days to work on ourselves. 

We search within ourselves, identify the different parts of ourselves, acknowledge and identify our more vulnerable parts that cause pain to ourselves and to others, and try to inhabit the part of our self that feels most authentic and true, and more at peace with those around us.

But the rabbis also understand this month of Elul another way. 

The Talmud teaches that the four letters spell out an acronym for a phrase.  What are the letters? Aleph, Lamed, Vav, Lamed.  What does it stand for?  Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Lee – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.  This is a variation on a verse from the Song of Songs, ancient biblical love poetry.

So, this is a month of love and relationships.  But how does that rabbinic understanding of the month relate to its theme of repentance? 

*         *         *

I want to argue that they go hand in hand.  And, we see that within the Jewish wedding. At the wedding, the partners are invited to start their marriage with a tabula rasa – a clean slate, one that has been forgiven from all previous sins and errors.  This is done through some of the wedding customs – wearing white to represent a new start, fasting before the wedding ceremony and reciting the Al Heit and Ashamnu, the same prayers for forgiveness we recite on Yom Kippur.  In fact, the wedding day is akin to a mini-Yom Kippur as all of those customs are the same for the couple on their wedding day as they are on Yom Kippur.

The tradition reminds us that once we can transform ourselves, performing repentance that allows us to be more whole, then we can enter into a new and sacred relationship with another person.  Similarly on Yom Kippur, once we transform and heal ourselves, we are ready to re-enter into a sacred relationship with God and the world around us.

And that idea is woven right into the central text of the wedding: the Sheva Brakhot – the seven sacred wedding blessings.  The rabbis created seven blessings to highlight the significance of this moment.

Now, what is their theme?

Well, they begin with the universal.  Shehakol bara livkvodo – that all creatures were created to reflect God’s glory, meaning that this couple (often outdoors since the preference is for outdoor weddings when possible) is now in harmony with nature.  Their love is like the perfect love of the Garden of Eden. Now, while we know that actually all was not perfect in the Garden for Adam and Eve, in the rabbinic mind, this was a moment of Platonic, idealized love. 

Photo courtesy of the couple

I was blessed to officiate at two wedding ceremonies this week that were held in the full beauty of nature – one in Northern New Hampshire overlooking a lake and the White Mountains (right)  – it was truly glorious.  

Photo courtesy of the couple

And then right here at Emunah in our new courtyard with the rocky ledge, trees and plants all behind us (left.)  Simply beautiful. The oneness with nature.

And the seven blessings continue to expand on this feeling – we are invited to hold onto this sacred moment with these texts helping us linger in this experience, fully feeling the joy of this transformation.  The blessings remind us that human beings are created in the image of God. Each person is unique and of infinite worth – a piece of the Divine, a spark of infinity and now, two of these sparks have come together.  The world is now more perfect, more sacred, more whole.

But the blessings do not just speak of creation and nature, they pivot toward the brokenness of the world.  They speak of how the akarah – the barren one will tageil – rejoice.  This is code for Jerusalem and the fractures in the world through the Kabbalistic framework.  Just as Jerusalem was destroyed so too the world itself is damaged and those cracks run through the entire universe.  But when two people find each other, there is a measure of healing that is brought to Jerusalem, to all humanity and the entire universe. 

The final blessings speak to a perfected world – where Zion’s children are now restored to her in joy.  Not only are the guests joyously singing in celebration, but also the mountains of Jerusalem join in the chorus to indicate that the entire Jewish people are all harmonizing in happiness.  This is redemption – the healing that we pray for all the time and work toward through our performance of mitzvot – of the commandments and acts of kindness and love.

This move from the particular to the universal, from this specific couple to all couples, from the Jewish people’s experience to the experience of all humanity is a classic rabbinic move, embedded throughout our tradition.  We are supposed to work on ourselves, but we never remain there; we turn toward others.

Breaking the glass (photo courtesy of the couple)

This is emphasized at the close of the wedding when the glass is broken.  While this was, most likely, a custom that originated in the superstitious belief that making a loud sound would ward away evil spirits, it has taken on a deeper meaning serving as a reminder that even on a couple’s most special day, a day they are focused on themselves, they think of others.  They are called to remember that moments of joy are tinged with an awareness of the fragility and brokenness all around us. The sound serving like a shofar, a call to action.

And that’s what this month of Elul is all about.  As we sound the shofar and recite the 27th Psalm, we are, hopefully, transforming ourselves, and through that, entering into a deeper and more united relationship with the world.

That’s what this process is about each year and I wish us all strength on this journey.

About the Author
For the past seventeen years, David Lerner has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in historic Lexington, MA, where he is now the senior rabbi. He has served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, and Emunat HaLev: The Meditation and Mindfulness Institute of Temple Emunah. A graduate of Columbia College and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner brings to his community a unique blend of warmth, outreach, energetic teaching, intellectual rigor and caring for all ages.