Mushki, given the paucity of my experience in conducting Jewish weddings, I feared that I’d perform the ceremony imperfectly and my own daughter would end up living perpetually in sin. So, I brought in the heavy guns – your new grandfather-in-law, Rabbi Zalman Lipsker of Philadelphia – to join me in conducting your wedding.
I have waited my entire life as a parent to see you here under the chupa-wedding canopy, baby girl. 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 step ladder to climb out. Years later, when we moved to New Jersey and you were about ten, I was sitting and doing an interview with a journalist when I suddenly felt my entire back crumble. You had lunged yourself from the top of the couch right on me. You were my firstborn, and, having learned from the baby-as-step-ladder experience, you were allowed to invade my every meeting.
But now, as we stand here, those are mere memories and serious changes are afoot. The man standing next to you is to become the epicenter of your life. Like an old, crumpled paper, 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 chosson. It is a validation of everything I stand for and believe. Your father is the product of a broken home and I bear the scars of that breakup till this day. Seeing you marry a fine young man with whom you will build a life makes me feel like I have reversed some of the wounds I have endured. I have been given the privilege of seeing love come alive, not just among strangers but among my own flesh and blood.
The ancient Rabbis say that a chupa 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 Eve, the first woman, in this new world you are both building.
Bereishis-Genesis, which we read in the Torah a little over a week ago, is the story of two people who owned absolutely nothing, not even clothing. And yet, in each other they found paradise. Their only possession was love and they reveled in the fullness that their companionship provided. Adam, whose first emotion, the Torah says, was loneliness, discovered fulfillment in the wife at his side and Eve too found happiness in her penniless husband. We commemorate that tradition till today by having a bridegroom empty his pockets prior to his arrival at the Chupa so that his wife accepts him for who he is without any accouterments. With Eve believing in him, Adam gained confidence. He felt his very being was sufficient to make his wife blissful. She laughed at his jokes. She snuggled at his side. Eve, too, felt desirable and essential. She was, in a very real sense, Adam’s one and only. There was noone else in the entire world to distract him and he loved her with every molecule of his being.
But the story takes a sudden and painful turn. Enter the serpent who points out to Eve 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.” Eve looks sad. Adam 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 simply switched their focus, away from what they have to what they lack. And that is why, as soon as they eat from the forbidden fruit, the Bible famously says they ‘came to know their nakedness.’ Whereas before they felt they had everything, now they felt like they had nothing. Fullness has been replaced failure. Enrichment with emptiness. They banished themselves from Eden.
In a real sense so many people today use possessions and material objects to fill the holes of their hollow hearts. They live with the mistaken belief that money will buy them Eden. But the lesson from the story of Adam and Eve is that paradise is not a fixed point on the globe but a habitation in the heart. It is not a geographic location that can be visited or a piece of real estate that can be purchased. It is, rather, an emotional frame of mind that must be experienced. Eden is walking by a river bank holding the hand of the spouse you love and paradise is seeing the children you have together laughing at the Sabbath table. I remember once, Mushki, that as a family we visited Washington, DC. 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. His poison is cold, numbing us to the blessings that surround us. The Bible says that as a result of his voraciousness, the serpent is cursed to eat dust all his days. Dust is plentiful, but always unsatisfying. And so is the materialism and upward career mobility which are used today as poor substitutes for love. You must therefore expel the serpent from Eden, giving 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. As you know I love the outdoors. I would carry you on my back up steep hills that would make your mother’s heart skip a beat and bring her to the cusp of profanity (don’t worry, she never crossed the line). We took you to visit your Grandma whom we told you lived in Miami, and the next week you cried to us that you wanted to go back to ‘Grandma’s Ami.’
Yet here you are, abandoning your father – after you had promised you’d hang around until drool was coming out of my mouth and I was in diapers – and running off with another man. But it’s as it’s supposed to be. The Bible says it most eloquently: ‘Therefore shall a man, leave his father and leave his mother, 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 the public gathered at this most private of moment? Why are marriages communal affairs?
Because your love is never meant to be private. You’re meant to light up the world with your affection. All of us who have gathered here look today to the two of you for inspiration. Those of us who are in less than loving marriages, or who were hurt by love, we look to you to believe again. All those whom life has beat up and who have been through the rinse cycle are looking to you to heal. All those whom relationships have let down are looking at you to feel lifted up. Inspire us. Move us. Free us from cynicism and despair. Give us hope. In witnessing the two of you dedicating yourselves to each other you have given us all a taste of paradise.
Go forth and build an eternal home among Israel and the Jewish people. Go forth and turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, the natural into the miraculous, the everyday into Eden.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has just published Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself.’ (Wiley) His upcoming book, ‘Kosher Jesus,’ is dedicated to his daughter Mushki and son-in-law Arik who were married this week. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.