Under the chupah

Under the chupah

Given my limited experience in conducting Jewish weddings, I feared that I’d mess something up and my own daughter would end up living perpetually in sin. So, Mushki, I brought in the heavy guns – your new grandfather-in-law, Rabbi Lipsker of Philadelphia – to join me in conducting your wedding.

[Truth regardless of consequences] I have waited my entire life as a parent to see you under the chupah (the wedding canopy). You are my eldest child and we have always shared a special bond. One night, when you were about three and we were living in Oxford, I hosted “important” people for dinner and you were sent with your baby sister Chana to your room. You weren’t used to being separated from me and Mommy, and we had to install small bars in front of the bedroom door to make sure you stayed in bed and didn’t escape.

A few minutes later, we were all startled to hear shrieks from upstairs. We ran and saw you were squashing your sister underfoot, using her as a stepladder to climb out. Years later, when we moved to New Jersey, I was being interviewed when I suddenly felt my entire back crumble. You had lunged yourself from the top of the couch right on me. You were my baby girl, and, having learned from the baby-as-stepladder experience, you were allowed to invade my every meeting.

But under the chupah, those are mere memories. Serious changes are afoot. The man next to you is the new epicenter of your life. I am yesterday’s news (you know how much I like feeling sorry for myself). But far from being sad, I am ecstatic to see you with your husband-about-to-be. It is a validation of everything I stand for and believe. I am the product of a broken home and still bear the scars of that breakup. Seeing you marry a fine young man with whom you will build a home among our people makes me feel as though I have reversed some of what I endured. I have been given z’chut – the privilege – of seeing love come alive among my own flesh and blood.

The Sages of Blessed Memory say that a chupah is a recreation of Eden, which is why it is covered in beautiful flowers and other natural ornaments. In a sense you, Arik, are the first man, and you Mushki, are Chavah (Eve), the first woman, in this new world you are both building.

Bereishit-Genesis is the story of two people who owned absolutely nothing, not even clothing. Their only possession was love and they reveled in the fullness their companionship provided.

But the story takes a sudden and painful turn. Enter the serpent, who points out to Chavah that there is a fruit she has never tasted. “Are you really happy?” he asks. “Look at all the things that are outside your reach. The neighborhoods you can’t afford. The vacations you haven’t taken.”

She looks sad. Her husband begins to feel like he’s not enough. They have made one another feel inadequate and in so doing they have transformed paradise into hell. And all because they switched their focus, away from what they have to what they have not. That is why, as soon as they eat from the forbidden fruit, the Torah famously says they “came to know their nakedness.” Now they felt as if they had nothing. Fullness was replaced by failure, enrichment with emptiness.

They banished themselves from Eden.

In a real sense, too many people today use possessions, material objects, to fill the holes of their hollow hearts. They live with the mistaken belief that money will buy them Eden. But the moral of the story of the First Couple is that paradise is not a fixed point on the globe; it is a habitation in the heart. It cannot be bought. It must be experienced.

Eden is walking by a river bank holding the hand of the spouse you love; paradise is seeing the children you have together laughing at the Shabbat table. I remember once, Mushki, that as a family we visited Washington, D.C. All my children were walking ahead of me looking at the cherry blossoms and Mommy walked at my side. And I consciously remember thinking to myself that this is as good as it gets. This is life at the mountaintop.

But just as paradise is something that lives inside us, and can be experienced at any loving moment, so too the serpent slithers within, attempting to inject his venom into our bloodstream. Expel the serpent from Eden; give him no quarter in your heart.

When you were born, Mushki, your mother and I became parents. Suddenly we had everything. We took you everywhere.

Now here you are, abandoning your father and running off with another man. But it’s as it should be. The Torah says it most eloquently: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and leave his mother, and he shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

But as the two of you profess your love and dedication to each other, one question remains: What are the rest of us doing here? Why is an audience gathered at so very private a moment? Why are marriages communal affairs?

It is because your love is not meant to be private. You’re meant to light up the world with your love. We who attend weddings look to the bride and groom for inspiration. Those of us who are in less than loving marriages, or who were hurt by love, look to you to believe again. Those whom life has beat up, who have been through the rinse cycle, look to you to heal them with your love for each other. Those whom relationships have let down look to you to uplift them.

Inspire us. Move us. Free us from cynicism and despair. Give us hope.

When we witness a loving bride and groom dedicating themselves to each other, all of us get to taste a small bit of paradise.

Go forth. Go forth and build an eternal home among Israel and the Jewish people. Go forth and turn the everyday into Eden.