This past week marked Tu B'Av, the 15th of the month of Av, a day described in Talmud as a day when the women of Jerusalem would go out to the vineyards in borrowed white dresses to find their life's partners. It is the season to think about weddings and new beginnings.
One of the real joys of my work as a rabbi is the privilege of helping two people prepare for marriage. We meet many times over the process, talking about their hopes and dreams, confronting some of the challenges in their relationship, how they handle money, how they resolve conflict, addressing the need for genetic screening if they hope children are part of their future and, of course, planning the ceremony.
I always begin with a question: if money were no object, and family considerations not an issue, what is your fantasy wedding? It is a good way to get a quick sense of what they wish their wedding could be. And it gives me the opportunity to ask: Who else might have fantasies about this wedding? Of course other people often do have fantasies -- parents, siblings, sometimes friends -- because a marriage is not just a life cycle event in the lives of the couple, but also a transformation of many relationships. A mother becomes a mother-in-law; a sibling a brother- or sister-in-law. People who were once strangers become mechuten*; uncoupled friends who used to be inseparable from the soon-to-be bride or groom begin learn to relate to a couple. There is most often boundless joy in these transformations, but there is also loss and even ambivalence. "Where is the little girl I carried? Where is the little boy at play? I don't remember getting older; when did they?"
There is a tension in a Jewish wedding. On the one hand, the decision to marry is very personal, animated by the individual life stories of the people getting married. But to marry in a Jewish way, the couple must speak the same cosmic words and perform the same rites that every other Jewish bride and groom does. The trick to a meaningful ceremony is to personalize the cosmic.
Life cycle ceremonies, especially weddings, are more than a moment in time. They look backward and forward through the lives of individuals and families. At a bris or a covenant ceremony for a girl we say: "Just as he/she has entered the covenant, so may s/he enter a life of Torah, chuppah (marriage canopy) and good deeds." The baby is still tiny but we are already looking forward to the moment of marriage and beyond, and to when that little one has children of his or her own. So we personalize the cosmic, using ritual objects that evoke family history, a grandfather's tallit as part of a chuppah, a kiddush cup connected to family holidays. The ketubah (marriage contract) the couple writes often becomes a beautiful illuminated text that the couple displays in their home. Sometimes reading those words to each other becomes part of an intimate anniversary tradition reminding them of the promises they made to each other.
A high point of the ceremony is the Sheva Berachot, the seven blessings offered over the second cup of wine. While the first cup has come to symbolize the separate histories of the individuals being married, the second cup is typically a new cup, symbolizing the beginning of their marriage. Their children might choose that second cup to be the first when they grow up and marry.
Surprisingly the blessings are not personal. They speak of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, of Zion being reunited with her children as the exiles come home, of the hoped for future when there will be peace in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem.
In fact, these blessings are the moment anthropologists describe as "liminal"; the bride and groom are not quite single any more but also not yet married. It is the moment when all of history flows through the couple -- from the imagined primordial Eden to the redemption we call messianic. At this moment everything is possible. This couple could be the vessel through which redemption enters the world, this marriage could indeed be a good one, this couple could have only joy, this love could heal the world. On some level, even without words, people witnessing the ceremony understand this -- they remember their own weddings, they touch the sorrow of promises that were unfulfilled, they remember when they were at that high place, that liminal moment, when everything was possible. That's why people cry at weddings. None of us can stay in that place of wholeness -- we come back to the real world in which we live through the breaking of the glass. And then, with a kiss and amid shouts of Mazel Tov, the two people take their first steps as a married couple through that broken glass, with prayers and the optimism that although they know the world is broken, their love can bring the possibility of healing and of hope to our broken world.
I have been the rabbi at scores of weddings over the years. Each is unique and special. But I will only be the mother of the groom at one wedding, coming up soon as my son Joshua and his wonderful bride Janelle begin the rest of their lives together. I am certain that I too will cry.
And I look forward to the day when the blessing of marriage will be legally available to all couples who love each other, whether heterosexual or gay. That tikkun is something we all need to continue to work for to make real.
*mechuten/mechutonim/machetenester --- the Yiddish word that describes relatives through marriage, the relationship between the parents of the bride and groom