Monday, December 26, 2011

Making Your Dreams Come True

We started this year with a wedding on New Year's, and fittingly ended it on Christmas Day. This was the first interfaith wedding I officiated, where all food was catered strictly kosher. It was held at Selina's parents' home in Colleyville, Texas. Selina’s family members are Isma’ilis. While it is impossible to truly reduce a religious tradition to a few words, the Isma’ilis emphasize social justice, pluralism, and human reason within the framework of the mystical tradition of Islam. Elliot's family are Orthodox Jews (hence the kosher meal). The beautiful ceremony, preceded by the lighting of Chanukah candles, wove together elements from both their traditions. Here are the remarks I shared with them and their guests:

How do you make your dreams come true? Is that not what this day is all about? I believe that this successful young couple may provide some insight into how we can make our dreams come true with three aspects of their story.

Selina and Elliot both grew up in families that treasure learning. It is not surprising therefore that they are first and foremost passionate learners. Learning new things is something that they each relish. They each, in fact, talk about how much they have learned from each other, and how this learning has bettered them as individuals and as a couple. It is this willingness, nay hunger to learn that has made them so successful, that has allowed them to thrive, and that has enabled them to fulfill their dreams.

Now learning is not enough. It is, after all, in a sense, just a tool. One must be passionate about the truth, as learning's guide, its lighthouse, if you will, for learning to truly matter. The truth is not always convenient, nor is it always pretty. That said, dreams cannot come true, if one avoids it. Selina and Elliot constantly strive for truth, and do not flinch from it, wherever it may lead them.

There is however one more critical component, empathy, which Selina and Elliot have in spades. You can scarcely imagine two more empathetic individuals. They truly put themselves into others’ shoes. They truly ask what others’ needs are before theirs’. This is why they have done a triathlon for charity. This is why Selina encouraged Elliot to pursue coaching kids. This is why this is such a giving couple. They understand that fulfilling one's dreams lies more in the thou, than in the I; more in thinking about others, than in thinking about ourselves.

Selina and Elliot, thank you for this important lesson. May we all heed your example, and may your dreams and ours all come true.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Rabbi and the Elephant: How I Officiated a Cosmopolitan Interfaith Wedding in Thailand


With guests from Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Thailand and the U.S. present, Nad and Alex's wedding was easily one of the most cosmopolitan I had ever officiated. With a fairly traditional inclusive Jewish ceremony, bookended by Thai customs, it was definitely one of the most intercultural. Throw in the fact that I was upstaged by an elephant, and you have the backdrop for a great story!

While one might think that the coupling of a Russian Jew and a Thai Buddhist might be a challenge, this bride and groom showed that it need not be so. This may just be because the bride, Nad (short for Nadusa), and the groom, Alex, who live in Australia, are true citizens of the world. Nad was born in Thailand, but grew up mainly in Australia and Europe, due to her father's work for Royal Thai Airways. She was schooled in an international school in Paris, and is fluent in (standard American accented) English, French, German and Thai. Alex was born in Russia, and he grew up there and (from age 15) in the U.S. He trained as a radiologist at Harvard, and practices a specific type of medicine that embodies the global village we live in. If you ever have an x-ray done in the middle of the night, you may wonder where on earth they find a radiologist to read it. Well, on the bottom part of the earth, that is where! It may, in fact, be Alex, a "nighthawk" radiologist, who by virtue of being in a very different time zone, will, during what is day for him, get a report back to your stateside doctor. Nad also (naturally) works for an international corporation.

The couple reflects a cosmopolitan life not only in their upbringing, their professional lives and their personal day to day lives, but also in their philosophy of living. They are both very proud of their cultural heritages, but in terms of actual religious beliefs are much more humanistic in their leanings. They wanted their ceremony to reflect this, and their idea of how it would was to have a fairly traditional, while inclusive, Jewish ceremony, with Thai customs before and after it. For the location, they chose Koh Samui, a small picturesque island in the southern part of Thailand.

Their exciting beachside ceremony began with the sound of the beating of a gong and drums and men we could not yet see, shouting in Thai, "Here we come, we are here," as they drew closer. The first thing we then saw was four ornately and traditionally dressed young Thai women, swaying slowly as they processed. We then saw the men we had heard before, followed by the "guest of honor" - a baby elephant! The elephant was decorated with ornate jewelry and was dancing too. They brought in the groom, and sat him next to the bride. One of the men then set up a xylophone, and the four women danced to its music an elaborate synchronized dance in front of the bride and groom. They ended by spreading before them a bed of rose petals in perfect synchronization.

I then officiated the Jewish portion of the ceremony under a lovely chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy) on the beach. They exchanged heartfelt vows and rings, and shared a cup of wine. They signed an attractive ketubah (ceremonial Jewish marriage contract) written in Hebrew, English and Thai. (Nad's mom, a professional translator, helped with the translation.) I then blessed them with the Priestly Blessing, which is the most ancient copy of scripture archeologists have found in Israel. I explained how our forefathers, those who gave us the Torah, imagined my mythic ancestor, the first high priest, Aaron, brother of Moses, blessing the Children of Israel with these very words. I love reciting this blessing in a third language (aside from Hebrew and English) when appropriate. In fact, I have blessed couples in Spanish (I do live in Tejas, after all), French, Arabic and Bulgarian. This time I used four languages, as I blessed Nad and Alex with the words of my great ancestor and theirs in Hebrew, English, Russian and Thai.

After the Jewish portion of the ceremony, we observed more Thai customs. We all got to feed the baby elephant. This "baby" ate whole clusters of bananas and watermelon quarters. The elephant also danced some more while playing the harmonica. (Seriously.) In Thai culture the elephant is the symbol of the king, and therefore in a broader sense is used to symbolize the nation and its happiness. Nad and Alex then planted a small "love tree" together, and raised a "marriage flag" on a tall staff. The final Thai custom was most interesting. Guests were invited to light small paper-covered lanterns. Once lit, by the virtue of the hot air inside, these rose far into the air, till they looked like far away stars. Each guest was encouraged to make a wish upon these stars for the good fortune of the bride and groom.

During my personal remarks, I talked about what a wonderful lesson the bride and groom taught us, in bringing us all together on that magical island. They showed us that people from different countries, cultures and religions can come together, enjoy each other's company and cultures, and make this seem effortless. Hopefully, I said, the whole world will learn Nad and Alex's lesson too. And, if they need an elephant to help make this happen, consider it done...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Number One Job of Every Faith Community

When someone asks me to officiate their wedding, I first ask the person to tell me about him or herself, and his or her partner. Second, I ask the person to tell me about their vision for their wedding. Third, I ask why it is important to them that a rabbi officiate their wedding. I get many different answers to this last question. Many times the Jewish partner will tell me that there is no way it could be different for them; it just feels natural. This was the answer that Renee gave me, right after she told me that technically she was not really Jewish since she never converted! She definitely piqued my curiosity. I had to hear more!

Last week I officiated Renee and Brian’s wedding at a very special location, the Jewish wing of the historic Main Post Chapel at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. This building was dedicated in 1909 by then President Howard Taft. It has plaques commemorating chaplains, officers, and servicemen and women of the recent and not so recent past. You really feel a sense of the past of our armed forces in the building. Renee and Brian, veteran and current service member respectively, felt just right in this hallowed building, as they are a very special couple. Here are the words I shared with them and their guests:

Once you hear Renee’s story in detail and Renee and Brian’s story together, it all makes sense, and has a deeper lesson imbedded in it too. Renee was attracted to the Jewish scene in her youth, and felt very comfortable and supported there. She felt so welcome, that when she joined the army she put down her religion as Jewish. Once again, she felt welcome and supported by fellow Jewish soldiers. Unfortunately, she suffered an injury early on, and had to do a fitness test to move to a different unit. She was very fearful that she would fail the test, or even reinjure herself. Then the Jewish chaplain showed up unannounced, took the test with her, and cheered her on the whole way, till she passed. Obviously, this event made its mark on Renee, and deepened her sense of connection to the Jewish People. This is what brought Renee and Brian to attending their local synagogue today together. They both feel very much at home there. So, of course, it was going to be a rabbi, who would marry them!

In their story Renee and Brian highlight an aspect that is tremendously important for every faith community. Before we think about theology, before we talk about religious practice, before we even mention worship, we must bring comfort. Our most important function as faith communities is to make people comfortable, to bring comfort, to support others. The cool thing about Renee and Brian, is that this is the way they both live their lives. You may not hear them say it, because these are two very modest people. However, if we were able to talk to that chaplain, who ran with her, and her fellow Jewish soldiers, you just know that they would say that Renee is one of the most supportive people they knew. If you would ask Brian’s airmen, and for that matter, if you could ask his canine colleagues over the last 15 years, you just know they would say that this is a guy, who just puts people and animals at ease, and makes them feel comfortable. This is a guy, who will have your back.

Renee and Brian, we are blessed as a community to have you as part of it. We encourage you, as individuals and as a couple to continue growing, to continue setting a great example, and to continue to provide aid, comfort and support to each other and to those around you.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Lauren and Martin - Lovers, Best Friends and Creative Partners

The second wedding I officiated this last Saturday was the wedding of Lauren and Martin. These are two of the most creative people I have ever met. Lauren is a filmmaker and Martin is a writer. They have had to live in two different states for the last few months due to Lauren’s acceptance into a prestigious filming program, while Martin finishes up his exclusive MFA program, hundreds of miles away. On a personal note, when I was thinking about not only their love, but also their creative partnership, I was reminded of my parents’ creative partnership. I can actually tell which parts of the introduction to my dad’s magnum opus were written before my mom’s death, and which after, because that partnership was so pronounced. Likewise, Liat’s touch can be seen in my writing too. So, what I saw in Lauren and Martin was something warmly familiar. Here is what I shared with them and their guests:

What struck me about Lauren and Martin is that these are two people, who in their lives as individuals and as a couple, were not afraid to take that road less traveled. They have repeatedly shown that if you take the time to figure out what you really want to do, and then you relentlessly pursue that passion, you can live a dream that is truly your own. When you live your life like this, when you follow your dreams, it takes the edge off of difficulties, and it makes each success sweeter. Not only that, it makes it clear that true meaning, that true happiness can be found when your dream is not only wrapped in the destination you seek, but in the journey you travel.

Now, many couples share love and happiness, while their professional lives may not be an integral part of their shared journey. And that is OK. There is nothing wrong with that. Lauren and Martin, however, have a different and additional dimension to their relationship, one that makes it run deeper, one that causes their lives to be more deeply intertwined, even when a few hundred miles separate them like in the last few months. Their journey is one of mutually influenced creativity. Lauren’s filmmaking is better because Martin is in her life, and Martin’s writing is richer because Lauren is in his life. Many future spouses may describe their future mates as their lovers and best friends, as Lauren and Martin do, when speaking of each other. Lauren and Martin add something that only a few future spouses mention. They talk about how they serve for each other as muses, as inspirations, as creative supporters, nay, creative partners.

So, Lauren and Martin, thank you. Thank you for reminding showing us how deep a relationship can run. Thank you for setting a great example in your personal and professional lives. Now, look into each other’s eyes. As the years go by, take a moment here and there to do what you are doing right now, to look into each other’s eyes, and realize your fortune, that you have made your dreams a reality, that you have found and continue to have by your side, your best friend, your lover, your creative partner.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Lori and Matt – They Didn’t Just Go With the Flow

This last Saturday I officiated two weddings in Austin, Texas. The first was Lori and Matt’s. Lori and Matt are really special people. Lori is an attorney, who works for a non-profit, and Matt grew up to actually work in one of those fields all little boys dream about working in, firefighting! They both have a rather humanistic bent, which is what I tried to bring out in my personal remarks:

One thing that struck me from my very first discussion with Lori and Matt is that really the phrase “interfaith couple” did not fit the bill with regards to this couple. “Intercultural couple” may be a more apt term. Indeed, each of them sees their religious heritage more in the context of culture than religious belief and practice. You see - Lori and Matt come from different backgrounds, and have had different life stories; however they have more in common in terms of faith and belief, than many other couples out there.

This is not due to coincidence. This is due to the fact that these two did not just go with the flow. They chose to really think about these issues of faith and belief. They continue to choose as individuals and as a couple to carefully examine their lives spiritually, figure out who they are, and what they want out of life. Most importantly they recognize that need to continue to grow together in this sense, and to focus on the joy, happiness and meaning that such growth can bring to a couple’s life.

Lori and Matt, thank you for reminding us of the importance of truly figuring out one’s spiritual path. May you continue to learn and develop separately and together, and through this may your happiness increase and your bond strengthen.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Natalya and Bret – Let’s Be Explicit Here

One of the great things about living in Texas, and I have personally lived on three continents, is that people are really really nice. Criticism is rarely heard, people tend to have a smile on their face, and cashiers still address you (or me) as “Hon(ey)”. Of course, the flip side of that is that understatement is king, even when it should not be. So, you will hear, “Oh, Jimmy (question mark, voice going up), his heart is in the right place,” which really means he is hard to get along with. Other times you will hear, “Oh, Mike (question mark, voice going up), he is a really hard worker,” which means he is not the greatest family man. You might even hear, “Oh, Susie, she comes from a great family,” which means that she, the apple, has unfortunately fallen a little far from the tree.

Now, you may be asking yourselves at this point, well, so what, and what does this have to do with what we can learn from Natalya and Bret. Well, I am glad you asked. You see, the downside of softened criticism is that when you have individuals who really have their hearts in the right place, who really treat their families and friends exquisitely well, and who really make their families and friends proud just to be associated with them, your praise of them might sound faint. You see, I believe anyone who interacts with Natalya and Bret, comes away thinking, “Wow, these are good people, these are two individuals who I can count on, these are people who show how a loving couple should behave to each other, this is a couple, who I can point to my kids as a positive example to my kids.”

Let us, therefore, not be shy. Let us point out to others, what a great, compassionate, humble and kind couple Natalya and Bret are. Let us learn to continue practicing what might be called Texas nice, but let us not forget that that means we need to be more explicit in our praise, if we and our families are to look up to positive examples of behavior like the loving couple we celebrate with today.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Kristin and Brian – Their Differences Strengthen Them

I wanted to point out two facts about Kristin and Brian, that when juxtaposed, remind us of something fundamental and important. Anyone who knows Kristin will tell you how devout she is, how her faith in Jesus permeates her daily life. Anyone who knows Brian will tell you how growing up with few Jews around him strengthened his commitment to the Jewish People, and made Judaism central to his identity.

Now listen to what each says about the other. Brian says, “I love her passion for what she does and that no matter how bad of a day we might be having, all we need is to hear each other’s voice and we begin to feel better. Kristin makes me laugh all the time and has many of the same priorities that I do. We both are very family oriented. We both enjoy just having a nice quiet relaxing evening together… We both love to travel and experience new things in new cities… I am so excited to have Kristin be a part of my family and have me be a part of hers.” Kristin says, “Brian is… is my best friend. When I look at him, I see someone that I am excited about spending the rest of my life with. Even when we are just hanging out at my apartment watching television I am excited to be with him. I also see the man that I want to be the father of my children. I am ready to marry Brian now because I am excited to take our relationship to yet another level and grow together as husband and wife.”

Kristin and Brian remind us of something that should be obvious, simple, almost simplistic, yet so missing today. We can agree to disagree. We each can have strong beliefs that we are passionate about, and still share love and happiness together. More than that, as Kristin and Brian will each tell you, our differences can actually strengthen our bond, our spirituality, and our individual faiths. So, I feel we owe you, Kristin and Brian, a debt of gratitude for reminding us of this important idea. Let us all heed your message and follow your example in our private and public lives, and through that make this world a better place.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Iris and Ben – Even a Hurricane Couldn’t Dampen Their Celebration

This last weekend I co-officiated Iris and Ben’s wedding at the beautiful Moon Palace Resort in Cancun, Mexico with Father Benito Aguilar. Hurricane Rina endeavored to disrupt the celebrations, but she didn’t stand a chance. BTW, this is one of the smartest couples I have ever met. Iris has an MBA from Harvard, and Ben has an MBA from MIT. They are not only intelligent, but really fun too. Here are the words I shared with them and their guests:

Iris and Ben share a very deep bond of love with each other. At the same time they are two very different people. They come from different backgrounds, cultures and faiths. Not only that their basic demeanor is strikingly different. Iris says that people often tell her that she is the happiest person they have ever met, while Ben could have written the old telegram once set by a Jewish mother in a hurry, “Start worrying now, details to follow…” So, how do they make it work? What is the secret of their deep abiding love?

Well, first, the premise of the question, though natural for us as human beings to ask, is slightly mistaken. If we are to imagine that there is someone out there that would be perfect just for us, why on earth would that person be like us? After all, each of us has strengths and weaknesses, and if anything, that person, who is best for us, ideally should help us, as we help them, become mutually complete. In that sense, that person would almost have to be very different.

There are, however, two important components that need to be there for all these moving parts to work – communication and planning. This is where, I believe, Iris and Ben excel and teach us a valuable lesson. Though they may sometimes disagree regarding who has the better approach, Harvard or MIT, these two know a thing or two about solving problems and managing projects. As such, they took time, constantly and openly communicating, as they developed their relationship, to deeply think about how to make it successful, and accordingly to carefully plan their future together.

Iris and Ben, as you embark on this new phase in your life, continue to embrace your differences, revel in how you complement each other, and keep excelling at lovingly communicating. Through this, may you find complete and ongoing happiness.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Believe in the Magic

Jessica and Joel’s wedding ceremony was very intimate. It was just them, Joel’s brother and his sister in law. It was magical! Indeed, magic is what I talked about at their ceremony:

Jessica and Joel, you share a magic that one does not see often enough. You both describe the moment you met, where you shared something that in the cognitive realm cannot be easily explained. There was a meeting of the minds. There was something in the air, that cannot be easily explained.

Though deep love at first sight may be an invention of Hollywood – after all, to love is to know, and one needs to get to know someone to truly love them – we should never discount the magic of the moment. You had that moment, and where others might just discount it, and move on, you did not let that moment become forgotten, either of you.

You continued to develop your connection, what was at first just a business relationship and a mutual appreciation. Then you took the plunge, and followed your hearts to embrace where the magic of that first moment would take you. Happily, it took you here to stand before us today.

So, from you Jessica and Joel, we learn the importance of believing in that magic in this human existence. You show us to not just in believe in it, but to follow it to where it may and can take us. Continue to travel that path, follow your hearts, live magically, and may your love continue to grow, as you follow your dreams.

Self Reflection is Key

Mesina and Mark are one cool couple. They are each tremendously successful and really smart. See them together, and you can see how love is in the air. Here is what I shared with them at their wedding about a week ago:

I remember years ago in a class given by one of my best rabbis and teachers, a truck started backing up in the parking lot behind our classroom. It made that chiming noise to warn anyone standing behind it. The rabbi stopped mid-sentence, and said, “Wow, if only we had that function as human beings – that when we started sliding backwards a chime would ring – our lives would be so much easier!” When driving myself, I often think in similar terms about my GPS. If only we had something automatically chime in to tell us when we have strayed from our way, and might just want to start “recalculating”. In human terms this is, of course, what we call, “self reflection”.

In Mesina and Mark you see this very essential quality that though obvious, many people do not practice enough – a highly refined ability to self reflect. This is something that really stands out in both of them. This is how they have lived their lives, dealt with challenges, and found impressive success. They have practiced self reflection in regards to their spirituality, their professional lives and their personal lives. This act in each of these areas has made them better in what they do, with highly developed capacities in their professional lives. More importantly, in my opinion, it has made them better persons, more compassionate individuals than the average person, and better friends to each other and to others.

We, therefore, owe Mesina and Mark a debt of gratitude. Thank you for reminding all of us, in the midst of the Jewish days of judgment to constantly practice self reflection, to regularly take stock of who we are and where we are going, and through that to be better people.

Learning from Each Other and Growing Together

Graduation ceremonies are often called commencements to symbolize that they herald a beginning, and that learning is something that must continue. Gila and Alan, who I married this last weekend, know how true this is regarding their relationship too. Here are he words I shared with them:

Gila and Alan inspire me in what they have created together. They are humble, honest and hardworking individuals, each in their own right. Had you met each of them before they knew each other, like many of you did, you would be able to say, without a doubt, “Now that is someone I can count on; that is someone who can get the job done.” In fact, that is how they met, at the workplace, with Alan, whose job it is to help us mere mortals navigate the mysteries of technology, helping Gila out with a problem she was dealing with.

What inspires me about this couple is that each will tell you how much they have grown through their relationship, how much each of them has learned from the other, how they each have allowed their relationship to make them better than they were before. Interact with them with for just a short while, and you will see that these are not just words. You can see this with your own eyes. In our individualistic culture, this is no small feat. Such obviously sensible behavior, coming from the recognition that we always have more to learn, can sometimes seem counterintuitive. This is why the way Gila and Alan built their relationship and continue to allow themselves to grow in it is even more admirable, as it necessitates a degree of swimming against the tide.

Gila and Alan, what we wish for you is that you continue to grow together, that you continue to learn from each other. Through such ongoing and careful development, your bond will not only be unbreakable, but grow stronger with each and every passing day.

Monday, September 19, 2011

She Takes Him Out of His Comfort Zone…

This last Saturday I co-officiated Brooke and Casey’s wedding in Durango, Colorado, with Pastor Dave Robinson, who I am proud now to count as a good friend. This is a very impressive couple. Brooke is a successful attorney, and Casey is a graduate of the Air Force Academy, who served our country for five years in the military. (Many at the wedding had attended military colleges, including the best man, who delivered his speech via recorded video address from Kirgizstan!) Pastor Dave is an old friend of the family, and an impressive humanitarian, who travels the world helping those in need. Here are the personal words I shared with Brooke and Casey and their guests:

Someone once asked me, "Rabbi, why do you frequently, answer a question with a question?" I thought about it for a moment, and I said, "Well, why not?"

Seriously, though, people often think that religions exist to answer their questions. Some even think that their religion gives them all the answers. They forget that the words attributed to the founders of most of today's religions show that they, challenging the status quo, had way more questions than answers. It was the only way they thought people could grow – if they constantly questioned themselves.

This is an attribute that Brooke and Casey share, and can teach us all. Brooke openly talks about her spiritual journey that is replete with questioning. She talks about how through a journey of questioning and exploration she and Casey have mutually grown together. Casey, in turn, gives Brooke the greatest compliment a man (we are a little more set in our ways than women are) can give to a mate, "She takes me out of my comfort zone... She makes me a better partner." He too discusses how they have learned so much from each other.

Brooke and Casey, we hope that you continue down this very path. Some might tell you that the most important words in marriage are, "Yes, dear." I actually think that the sentence needs to be more cerebral and a little longer. (I am a clergyman, after all...) It should be, "That's a great question! Why don't we try it that way?" Keep doing that, and your bond will be unbreakable.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Beyond an Operator’s Manual

This last Wednesday I officiated Nad and Alex’s wedding in Koh Samui, Thailand. Here are the personal words I shared with them and their guests:

Often when one conjures the (sometimes scary) idea of a member of the clergy trying to speak words of wisdom, one expects something along the lines of the following: “The Torah/Bible/Koran/Veda says we must do X, and it being a divine ‘operators’ manual’ for how we should live our lives, must be obeyed.”

Now, frankly, I find this rather tiring. First, with so many different and contradictory “manuals”, how are we to discern what could be the right one to use? However, second, and much more fundamentally, how many of us actually find any actual operators’ manuals in real life the least bit helpful? True learning is not done through a manual. It is done through trial and error, through observation and discovery. If this is true regarding an iPad or a cell phone, how much more so regarding something as complicated as life itself.

This is why it was so refreshing to me to read the words Nad wrote me regarding her philosophy of life, “I don't believe one should live life according to how someone else says life should look like.” How simple, yet how profound! It is clear that Nad and Alex have both lived their lives in this fashion. These are good, kind, solid, and responsible individuals, who are fun to be with, and who truly enjoy life. How did they become such individuals? It was not from reading an ancient book from 3000 years ago. Rather, it was from experiencing the world, living in different cultures, speaking different languages, interacting with other people, and observing the world.

So, Nad and Alex, thank you. Thank you for exemplifying one of the best ways to live life fully, and reach true happiness. We hope and pray that the happiness you have found together, through living life to the fullest, in just this fashion, will continue to be the path you tread for the rest of your life together.


Following Aaron’s Example

This last Saturday I officiated Wadia and Jared’s wedding in Merida, Mexico. Here are the personal words I shared with them and their guests:

One of the most interesting characters in Jewish lore is Aaron, the brother of Moses. We are told that Aaron loved people, and through this brought them closer to the Torah. Now, what exactly does this mean? How do you through love bring someone closer to the Torah, which really means closer to being a good moral person, in general?

Legend has it that whenever Aaron would bump into someone, regardless of if he knew the person or not, regardless of whom that person was, he would greet the person warmly and very kindly. There were no airs about him. He did not pull rank or act like a celebrity. The result, we are told, is that due to his loving and caring attitude people did not want to disappoint him. Therefore, they would make much better moral choices in their lives, do more positive things, and stay away from what was not proper.

Now, we can ooh and aah about Aaron’s greatness, but I think that there is a much more important lesson here. Feeling loved helps us develop in ways we could not otherwise, and it has the power of making each of us a better person. We each can better ourselves through the knowledge that someone who truly loves us would want us to do the right thing.

I have never heard this better described than the way Wadia does. She describes Jared with these words, “the voice of my conscience”. That is so simple, yet so profound! Jared too reflects this mutual aspect of their relationship, when he says that, “Wadia keeps me both in line, and on my toes.” (BTW, the very first time I spoke to Wadia I picked up on the “on his toes” part…)

Wadia and Jared, thank you for reminding us of this important lesson. May you continue to grow together, to develop together, and to serve as an example for us all for how a true love and being loved can bring us just a little closer to perfection.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Where to Find Real Treasure

One of the most intriguing mystical teachers of 18th Century Judaism was Rabbi Nachman of Breslau. He, like many mystics before and after him wrote fascinating parables. One of his most well-known goes as follows. A Jew in a small village had a recurring dream that there was a treasure buried under the bridge in front of the royal palace in Vienna. At first he tried to ignore it, but finally he could no more. He packed a bag and a shovel, and made the journey to the capital. Of course, digging right in front of the palace proved to be a challenge, to put it lightly. All he really could do was survey the area day after day, till he aroused the suspicion of one of the guards, who asked him what on earth he was doing. The man told the guard the whole story, upon which the guard had a very unexpected response. He snorted and told the man that he too had a recurring dream that under the stove in the home of a Jew in a far away village was buried a treasure. Did that mean he would make the journey all the way to that village and try to dig it up, all because of a dream? With that he shooed the man away, who with a smile on his face did not seem to mind, since the home the guard had described was his! He went home, dug up the treasure, and lived happily ever after.

The lesson of the parable is simple yet profound, and is one Sarah and Matt are teaching us too. Many of us seek our treasure away from home; this is only natural. It is also true that we often find that the treasure we seek is not out there, but in the very place we came from and the relationships we formed there. Sarah and Matt embody this truth. These are two individuals who enjoy very close relationships with their family and friends. They know that their treasure is found in all of you who are here today, so much so that they chose to celebrate the most important day of their lives in the very home where Sarah grew up.

So, Sarah and Matt, thank you. Thank you for reminding us of this important truth. May you continue to treasure each other and your families, and through this find genuine happiness.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Becky and Larry – A Great Pair of Learners

This last Sunday I officiated Becky and Larry’s wedding in Riverside County in California. Becky and Larry are both intriguing individuals. Becky is a teacher in the true meaning of the word, and Larry works in the entertainment industry. (This is the first wedding I have done, where the groom grabbed some drumsticks, and sat down to play with the band!) Here are the personal words I shared with this unique couple:

Becky and Larry are an inspiring couple. They are first and foremost learners. They relish in learning new things from each other and from those around them.

Both Becky and Larry do not hesitate to question, and this is really the foundation of learning. It is also the foundation of both Judaism and Christianity. The former’s foundational book is the Talmud, a book that is all about questioning (as if to emphasize this its very first words are a question). The latter was born out of questioning the religious order of the time, and its hero ends his life asking a question that has resonated through the generations, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Now, on the one hand, one might say, duh! Isn't it obvious that one should use every opportunity to learn? Isn't it a given that the only way we can improve is through life long learning? Well, yes, but unfortunately in our very individualistic culture, people seem to sometimes overlook this concept. Too often, the response to a question is, "Who do you think you are to question?" All too frequently, the response to a prompt to learn is, "You are not the boss of me!"

So, we should be thankful to people like Becky and Larry. Be it from older siblings, be it from indigenous inhabitants in a village deep in the Yucatan, their inclination is to learn as much as they can. Thank you, Becky and Larry, for setting a great example for all the rest of us.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Love is a Mystery

Yesterday I officiated my first ever wedding in West Virginia. I co-officiated Jenna and Jason's wedding in Wheeling with Father Jim Sobus. Here are the personal remarks I shared with them and their friends.

Love is a mystery. Though scientists may be able to technically explain love, I feel they will never properly elucidate it. Now that may seem, at first blush, distressing, as mystery can be scary. We, as humans, desire first and foremost to understand our surroundings. After all, we are arguably the descendants of those who eons ago on the African savannah understood their environment, and were hence able to pass their genes down to us.

That said, I believe that mystery, at times, gets short shrift, and love will remain mysterious; its beauty being embedded in this very nature. Indeed, ask Jenna about Jason, and she will tell you, “I have never felt so loved in my entire life, and have never loved anyone like I love Jason. It is kind of hard to explain, but we just seem to click. He is the only person that truly understands me and knows what I am thinking at any second of any day.” Jason will, in turn tell you, “Jenna is the most important person in my life. The past nearly 3 years have been incredible for me... I have accomplished more personally and professionally with Jenna in my life than ever before… There are times where I look at Jenna and words can't express how much I love her.” It is clear, that this couple before us is not afraid of the mysterious. They lovingly and willingly embrace it, and are better for it.

So, Jenna and Jason, thank you. Thank you for reminding us to embrace the mysterious in our lives and our relationships. Continue to keep the mystery of love alive in your relationship. Relish it, thrive through it, and I have no doubt, your bond will remain absolutely unbreakable.

Monday, July 25, 2011

King James Got It Wrong, Caitlin and Ben Got It Right

On Saturday I co-officiated the wedding of Caitlin and Ben with my friend and colleague, Dr. Bill Longsworth, at his beautiful historic church, FUMC of Fort Worth. Here are the personal remarks I shared with Caitlin, Ben and their guests:

Caitlin and Ben marry in an auspicious year, the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. This translation of the ancient text had a profound effect on the development of our culture in the English speaking world. So profound is its effect, that even erroneous translations in the King James Bible have eclipsed the correct meaning of those words. One of the best examples of this is in the Second Creation Narrative in Genesis Chapter 2. We all know the story. God creates Adam or “the Man”, and unsuccessfully tries to find him a partner among the animals. So, God puts Adam under, takes one of his ribs, and from it “builds” “the Woman”, right? Well, wrong. What really happened there? Caitlin and Ben tell us.

When I asked Caitlin why she wanted to marry Ben, she wrote following, “Ben makes me a happy and a whole person. I know, with everything in me, that he will always take care of me, worry about me, make me happy, and love me.” Ben writes, in turn, “I consider her my backbone. Without her support I don’t think I would be the same person I am today.” Now, each of them wrote these comments separately without seeing what the other wrote. That fascinated me, because, again, when you take their comments and put them together, they reflect what the Bible is really saying in that ancient myth.

You see, the Bible does not say that God took Adam’s rib. It uses the word “tzela”, which sometimes means rib, but which more often means “side”. The Bible imagines God creating not the first man, but the first human, the first Ah-dahm, as an androgynous being with two sides, two faces, one female and one male, back to back. When God performs his surgery on this being, he splits it into two halves, man and woman. This is why the Bible tells us that man leaves his mother and father, cleaves to his wife, and they become, whole again, one flesh. What this myth is, in fact, telling us is what Caitlin and Ben are telling us. Marriage is where one finds one’s backbone, marriage is where one becomes whole.

So, Caitlin and Ben, thank you for reminding us of this important lesson. May you throughout your lives together share a profound and mutual love, where you make each other feel more complete more whole than you ever felt alone. And, may each of us be so fortunate to so deeply appreciate our lovers, as you appreciate each other.

Monday, July 11, 2011

An Extension of the Golden Rule

This last Saturday I officiated Pauline and Nate’s Jewish-Filipino interfaith wedding. Here are the personal remarks I shared with them and their guests:

I have lived on three continents. I have lived in New Zealand and in the American Heartland where people are very cordial and tremendously polite, but it is really difficult to figure out what they really think about your actions in any given situation. On the other hand, I grew up in Israel, and Israelis are perceived by most non-Israelis as brash and even aggressive, but you always know where you stand with them. Think New Yorkers on Speed, and you get the idea.

Now, in our multi-cultural environment it seems usually taboo to talk about positives and negatives of cultures. To me there is something disingenuine about such an approach. Should we not admit, without judging individual persons, that every culture has its plusses and minuses? Is not true multi-culturalism about learning from other cultures, which means using some discernment regarding their qualities?

Is it not obvious that if one could, it would be best to exhibit the warmth and cordial nature of the Midwest and American South, along with the openness of our Israeli brothers and sisters? I have often thought about this, and when I met Pauline and Nate, I found exactly these qualities shared by both of them. This made it tremendously refreshing to interact with this lovely couple. They are the most pleasant individuals and at the same time they say what they mean, and mean what they say. How cool is that?! In this I think they are emblematic, once again, of how we should live and learn in this multi-cultural and multi-ethnic world we inhabit.

Now, really, there is nothing new here. Every religion tells us to treat others as we would like to be treated. Each of us wishes to be treated kindly, and also to know where we stand with others, so that we may navigate the world properly and pleasantly. Therefore, what Pauline and Nate do in their day to day life is just an extension of that golden rule.

Pauline and Nate, what do we wish for you? We hope and pray that you continue to enjoy happiness and love through your openness and kindness with each other and with others. We are confident that with this, you will continue to enjoy a wonderful life together, and inspire others to do the same.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Luckiest

This last Saturday I officiated my 100th wedding, right herein Frisco, Texas, at the fabulous Fairy Tale Manor.Here are the personal remarks I shared with Betsy and Billy and their guests:

Betsy and Billy have made quite an impression on me. You see thesefolks are not really big talkers; they are more quiet by nature. However, ifyou listen carefully, you can pick up on two fascinating interconnected factsabout them and their relationship.

First, you get a sense that they are extremely content together, whichI believe is a step beyond just being happy. Second, they share a profoundmutual sense of good fortune in having found each other. Betsy and Billy willtell you that they were not “looking” when they met each other. Itwas really a grand stroke of good luck. Now, some may denigrate luck, but Ihappen to be fascinated by it. After all, scientists tell us that we are allhere because of one cosmic and biological lucky break after another.

These two aspects of their relationship, a content feeling and afeeling of profound fortune, got me thinking about a quiet hauntingly beautifulsong by Ben Folds, called “The Luckiest”. Let me read you just afew words:

I don't get many things right the first time
In fact, I am told that a lot
Now I know all the wrong turns, the stumbles and falls
Brought me here

And where was I before the day
That I first saw your lovely face?
Now I see it everyday
And I know

That I am
I am
I am
The luckiest

These few words are very deep and multi-layered. Folds’ charactertalks about stumbles along the way, but there is not a shade of bitterness. Heis very content, and feels tremendously lucky to have his lover by his side. Iam not surprised this reminded me of Betsy and Billy’s love story.

Betsy and Billy, our wish to you is that you continue to enjoy a senseof good fortune from having found each other as life partners. Our hope is thatyou continue to exhibit for others what a true life of content, born from therecognition of that good fortune and from ongoing deep love, really and trulylooks like.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

20 Years

Usually I write about other couples. Let's depart from that once, and allow me to muse out loud on top of that...

So despite the common stereotype, it was I who remembered. Of course, I cheated a little. This is not our 20th WEDDING anniversary. It is the 20th anniversary of the date we used to celebrate evey month when we were going out as the date we "officially" started dating.

(I recently remarked to my daughter, who just turned 17, that her mom was that very age, when we started going out. Good thing she is ALREADY visually impaired, as an eye roll back that far could have hurt anyone's vision...)

How does one reflect on 20 years? I don't really know. We have lived on three continents. We had four children, are raising three that bring us much joy (and some frutration here and there...) and together buried one. We went from being very Orthodox to well, very not. We are very different people than we were, a little older, hopefully wiser, most of our lessons not the type one learns in the classroom.

So, we still have a road to hoe, and many adventures we plan together, and corny as it may sound, I wouldn't trade what we have for anything. Her name is Liat, which means, "You are mine." For the past 20 years she has been... Here is to many more multiples of 20!

Monday, June 6, 2011

What about Now, What about Today?

Yesterday, I officiated the wedding of a very special couple, Stacy and Mark. This couple has one of the most unique love stories I have come across. They were good friends in high school, both separately wanted to be more than that, and as men are from Mars and women are from Venus, had some miscommunications about that very fact. So, “Harry and Sally” like, each went their separate ways, married, had kids, and eventually divorced. Then they found each other again, and this time, grabbed the bull by its horns, fell very deeply in love, and the rest is history. Here is what I shared with them during their wedding ceremony:

I am about to divulge to all of you one of the most telling details one can share with others about him or herself. I have never really done this before, so deep breath, here goes. I am going to share some of the contents of my iPod playlist…

Seriously, though, many times, when I am trying to write personal remarks like these, I listen to music. Corny as it may sound, music can inspire my writing. This time, however, I didn’t just become inspired; I hit the jackpot. Here is the song by Chris Daughtry that my iPod came up with as it shuffled, when I sat down to think about what I would share with Stacy and Mark, and you all. Listen carefully to the words.

Shadows fill an empty heart
As love is fading,
From all the things that we are
But are not saying
Can we see beyond the stars?
And make it to the dawn?

Change the colors of the sky
And open up to
The ways you made me feel alive,
The ways I loved you
For all the things that never died,
To make it through the night,
Love will find you

What about now,
What about today,
What if you’re making me all that I was meant to be,
What if our love never went away,
What if it’s lost behind words we could never find,
Baby, before it’s too late,
What about now.

The sun is breaking in your eyes
To start a new day
This broken heart can still survive
With a touch of your grace
Shadows fade into the light
I am by your side,
Where love will find you…

Now that we’re here,
Now that we’ve come this far,
Just hold on
There is nothing to fear,
For I am right beside you.
For all my life,
I am yours.

It is almost like this song could have been written for Stacy and Mark. What Daughtry in his words, and Stacy and Mark in their love story teach us, is that in our lives as individuals, as couples, as families, as a nation, as a world, there are second chances. In fact, there may be more second chances than we realize. Too many times, we let those second chances, which could redefine our lives, which could revitalize our existences pass us by. What both this popular singer, and this lovely couple are telling us is – it does not have to be that way. They call upon us to ask ourselves, to ask our partners, to ask our families, to ask our nation and the whole world itself – what about now, what about today?

So, Stacy and Mark, thank you. Thank you for serving as an inspiration. Now, go ahead and hug each other (it’s perfectly OK, you are almost married…) and as the years go by, take a moment here and there to do what you are doing right now. Perhaps you might even say to each other when you do, “Just hold on, there is nothing to fear, for I am right beside you. For all my life, I am yours.”

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Lifting a Burden

The goal of this blog is to share what I learn from my couples, and usually postings contain my personal remarks at weddings, which share that goal. This posting will be a little different.

Recently at a wedding reception I had a fascinating discussion, during which I was able to help someone with an issue that was weighing heavily on her heart. This woman could be described by the rabbis of old as a “ba’alat yissurim”, a woman who had more suffering in her life, than would seem fair. She had lost two daughters, one at the age of nine in a horrible traffic accident, and one in her thirties to cancer. Having lost a child myself, I immediately felt a sense of kinship.

A close family member had criticized this woman for not being as devout as he was in terms of belief and church attendance. He told her that since she was not properly devout, she would not get to see her daughter in the afterlife. This greatly troubled the woman, and she sought me out at the wedding, as a rabbi, to ask me what I thought.

Now, personally, I have little use for the afterlife. I think it is extremely difficult to prove that this is an original Jewish concept. Even after this concept made its way into Judaism, our writings have always focused on this world, not the next. However, what one, especially a rabbi, must judge in such a situation, is not what do I think, rather what will bring comfort to this individual. This does not mean that I would utter anything I think not to be true. It just means that one helps the other person state what he or she believes in, what brings him or her comfort, and then validates that as a legitimate position.

I asked her if she had read Lance Armstrong’s book, It’s Not About the Bike, My Journey Back to Life”. She said she had. I reminded her of this excerpt:

The night before brain surgery, I thought about death… I asked myself what I believed. I had never prayed a lot. I hoped hard, I wished hard, but I didn’t pray. I had developed a certain distrust of organized religion growing up, but I felt I had the capacity to be a spiritual person, and to hold some fervent beliefs. Quite simply, I believed I had a responsibility to be a good person, and that meant fair, honest, hardworking, and honorable. If I did that, if I was good to my family, true to my friends, if I gave back to my community or to some cause, if I wasn’t a liar, a cheat, or a thief, then I believed that should be enough. At the end of the day, if there was indeed some Body or presence standing there to judge me, I hoped I would be judged on whether I had lived a true life, not on whether I believed in a certain book, or whether I’d been baptized. If there was indeed a God at the end of my days, I hoped he didn’t say, “But you were never a Christian, so you’re going the other way from heaven.” If so, I was going to reply, “You know what? You’re right. Fine.”

She said she remembered that, and agreed wholeheartedly with Lance. Still, it seemed that she needed someone, who had pastor or rabbi in front of his or her name to tell her that Lance was right. She needed that someone to tell her that not spending every Sunday in church would not prevent her from seeing her daughter again. I reassured her that Lance had it right. I reassured her that the person who had clearly hurt her with his remarks was wrong. I could see from her face that a tremendous burden had been lifted from her shoulders.


Monday, May 30, 2011

Questioning is Key

This last Sunday I co-officiated Misty and Brian’s wedding at the Four Seasons in Austin, Texas, with Reverend CJ Taylor. I talked about a concept that to me is one of the most important, questioning:

I believe that central to each of these two individuals before us is that they never shied away from questions. Each of them separately and before they met, showed the same intellectual honesty of questioning their faiths, not just accepting everything, hook, line and sinker. They each developed an understanding of the role they wished religion and spirituality to play in their lives. In turn, when they became a couple, they again did not ignore the challenges inherent in two people coming together from two different faith traditions. They knew they had to ask questions of themselves and each other, and arrive at answers together as a couple, regarding the place and manner religion and spirituality would play in their lives.

Now, some may see questioning of one’s faith as disrespectful or out of place. Nothing can be further from the truth. After all, the most central book in the Jewish faith is the Talmud, a book of questions, even heated arguments resulting from fierce questions. Christianity too is born of questioning the religious establishment of the time.

So, Misty and Brian, I urge you to continue setting an example for others. Continue on your path of questioning, thinking and reflecting. Continue to make that a part of your relationship, and make it a part of the lives of your future children. Remind yourselves again and again that answers are important too, but that questions and challenges are what keep us alive and kicking. Follow that path and I have no doubt, your bond will remain absolutely unbreakable.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Unity, Not Uniformity

This last Sunday I officiated Angela and Kevin’s wedding in Fort Worth, Texas at the elegant Historic YWCA. Here are the personal words I shared with them and their guests:

There is an assumption on the part of some, and that some includes some members of the clergy unfortunately, that an interfaith relationship will serve to weaken, or even dilute the faith of an individual. What I have found regarding most couples, and Angela and Kevin stand out as a strong example of this, is that it is actually the opposite.

Falling in love with, developing a relationship with, and marrying someone who is of a different faith tradition, can actually strengthen one’s connection to his or her faith tradition. Kevin is very open about the fact that Angela’s commitment to her faith has inspired him to bring the Jewish faith back to a more central place in his life. Angela is explicit about the fact that her relationship with Kevin has served to perfect and mature her Christian faith.

Angela and Kevin find their respective connections to their faith traditions strengthened, because of one key concept. They both understand that unity does not have to mean uniformity. They understand that diversity is not a dirty word. They understand that they each can be strong in their differing beliefs, and also have a powerful and loving mutual bond.

Angela and Kevin, our prayer is that you continue to live a life of learning and growing together. Our hope is that you continue to strengthen each other. Our charge to you is that you inspire others to do the same.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Apples and Trees

This last Saturday morning I officiated Lanie and Farron’s wedding at the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort in San Antonio, Texas. I shared with them and their guests a message that had some similarities to a recent message I shared at a baby naming, coming at it from a different angle:

So here’s the deal with these two – they have the full package – they really do. They are deeply connected to their families, they view each other as allies and best friends, not just lovers, and each one of them will tell you that their relationship has brought about mutual improvement and growth. What is their secret?

Well, from what I can gather, it seems that if we look at the trees, we might have an answer regarding the apples. You see, quite often, the most significant adjustments in any loving relationship have to do with what is the “normal” way of doing things, and the translation of “normal” really is “the way my folks do it”. My wife and I are a great example. A few days after we married 18 years ago, I suggested I make scrambled eggs for breakfast, and she enthusiastically agreed. She left the room for a few minutes, as I began to make the eggs. When she returned, she had a horrified look on her face. I was perplexed, and I asked her what was wrong. She, her voice quivering, said that I had broken the eggs into a glass, and not a bowl, which is the normal way to do it. I looked at her like she was crazy, and I insisted that normal people break their eggs into a glass. Again, instead of normal insert, “the way my folks do it.” Now, of course, in our home today, we break eggs into a bowl, because that is what normal people do… but that is really beside the point.

Now, I do not believe any couple since the dawn of time has escaped such adjustments. Every couple has the type of adjustments my wife and I dealt with. It is though, I believe, in the hands of parents to raise their children in a way that can minimize these. It is up to parents to raise children with not only a set of standards of behavior, but also with the understanding that different people do things differently, and that that is OK. It is up to parents to raise children that understand that, sure there are things that are black and white, but most of the world is pretty much gray. It is up to parents to raise children who are open to learning, and are not afraid to try new ways of doing things. It is up to parents to broaden the scope of what is normal.

Lanie and Farron, from our discussions, from what you told me orally and in writing, I think this is your secret. Your upbringing by your parents is what brought you together in such a harmonious relationship. You see, in a way, in my introduction, I told the truth but not the whole truth. I talked about learning from couples, where really many times, and this is just one more of those times, I find myself learning from families too.

Lanie and Farron, what we wish for you is that you do the same. You may come from different cultural and religious traditions, but I encourage you to continue the shared tradition of your parents. Build a home where pluralism is central. Raise a family where the words "my way or the highway" never come into play. Inculcate your children with the spirit of learning and growing your parents inculcated you with. Through this you and they will find complete, utter and true happiness.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

How Parents Can Broaden the Scope of Normal

Though I mostly do weddings, lately people have been calling on me to do other things too. This last Saturday, I was privileged to officiate a baby naming for Miriam, daughter of Farrah and Nate. I first spoke about her Hebrew name, and then about what I wished her.

Friends, one of the most fascinating things about Jewish tradition is that a Jewish scholar, be he the greatest scholar of his generation, is referred to as a talmid chacham, literally a wise student. That is because Judaism values the idea of life long learning. Whatever like-cycle event I officiate, I try to see it as a teachable moment.

Nobody really knows what the real meaning of Miriam is. Farrah and Nate chose this name, because it combines the names of Nate’s mother and grandmother. In English that would be Marion, and so Miriam was an obvious choice. The character of Miriam does have a fascinating connection to Pesach, which we are in the midst of celebrating. While the standard story of the Exodus emphasizes Moses and Aaron, we can definitely see on the periphery of the story the role of Miriam, their sister, as key. She is the one who engineers Moses growing up in Pharaoh’s house. She is the one who arranges for Moses to spend a few years with his birth mother, before going off to Pharaoh’s house. She is the one who the Bible tells us sings a song of thanks after the parting of the Red Sea, a song that Moses more lengthy song is clearly based on. A later prophet, therefore, when referring to the Exodus says to the people of Judea, “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.”

A few weeks ago I asked Farrah and Nate to share their hopes for little Miriam with me. They told me that they wished for to be happy and find personal fulfillment in life; that she should grow up to be her own person and an independent woman, that she should find personal fulfillment; that she should try as hard as she can, and find professional success.

I think these answers, coupled with what I have gathered from spending some time with Farrah and Nate, are telling in a very good way. You see, I spent 12 years as an educator, 5 of those as an assistant principal first for elementary and middle school and then for high school, and now I spend my time mostly marrying couples. This has taught me, that not surprisingly, when you look at the apples, you usually see a correspondence to the trees. In that sense, the most difficult thing to teach and more importantly unteach is how to interact with other people, especially a life partner.

You see, quite often, the most significant adjustments in any loving relationship have to do with what is the “normal” way of doing things, and the translation of “normal” really is “the way my folks do it”. My wife and I are a great example. A few days after we married 18 years ago, I suggested I make scrambled eggs for breakfast, and she enthusiastically agreed. She left the room for a few minutes, as I began to make the eggs. When she returned, she had a horrified look on her face. I was perplexed, and I asked her what was wrong. She, her voice quivering, said that I had broken the eggs into a glass, and not a bowl, which is the normal way to do it. I looked at her like she was crazy, and I insisted that normal people break their eggs into a glass. Again, instead of normal insert, “the way my folks do it.” Now, of course, in our home today, we break eggs into a bowl, because that is what normal people do… but that is really beside the point.

Now, I do not believe any couple since the dawn of time has escaped such adjustments. Every couple has the type of adjustments my wife and I dealt with. It is though, I believe, in the hands of parents to raise their children in a way that can minimize these. It is up to parents to raise children with not only a set of standards of behavior, but also with the understanding that different people do things differently, and that that is OK. It is up to parents to raise children that understand that, sure there are things that are black and white, but most of the world is pretty much gray. It is up to parents to raise children who are open to learning, and are not afraid to try new ways of doing things. It is up to parents to broaden the scope of what is normal.

Continue to build a home where pluralism is central. Raise your family in an environment where the words "my way or the highway" never come into play. Continue to inculcate your children with the spirit of learning and growing. Through this you and they will find complete, utter and true happiness.

Monday, April 25, 2011

What a Rabbi Learned From Two Buddhists

This last Saturday I officiated the wedding of two American Buddhists. Brian is originally a Kiwi of Chinese descent, and Natakan is from Thailand. Of course, when Brian called me the first time, I asked no doubt what you are asking now, “Why would two Buddhists ask a rabbi to do their wedding?” He explained that a modern American wedding was what they wanted, and that would not really work well with what the temple monks would be comfortable doing. On top of that, their date was a day before Easter, so a Christian minister did not make sense. Hence, they called on me. (The postscript is that after the ceremony all of their guests told them they would want this rabbi to officiate for them!)

Natakan and Brian are very special, modest and quiet individuals. They each have suffered more personal losses than would seem fair, but are extremely sunny and optimistic individuals. I found myself learning a lot from them. I shared some of that in these personal words during their ceremony:

Friends, when people ask me to describe myself, I say that I am first and foremost a learner. So, whenever I officiate a wedding, I ask myself, this couple, being unique individuals, what can I learn from them, what are they, consciously or maybe even unconsciously, teaching me, and indeed us?

I found that I learned so much from spending time with Natakan and Brian. Whenever someone has a job that is so specialized and demands such intelligence and skill that I can’t even understand what they do – that is a person I know I can and will learn a lot from…

Seriously, though, these are two individuals who share the fact that they have been schooled by and in the school of life. They have had to deal with their share of physical and emotional pain. In the face of these, they have not only been stoic; they have exhibited, and continue to exhibit quiet determination and powerful love.

When one observes the simple, deep and mutual love that this couple shares, it brings to mind the story about an elderly rabbi who took his wife to the doctor. The doctor asked what the problem was, and the rabbi said in Hebrew, “Ragla shel ishti ko’evet lanu”. Now in Hebrew it works a lot better, but essentially what he was saying was not “My wife feels pain in her leg”, rather “We feel pain in my wife’s leg”. You see, he was so in love with his wife, that when she was in pain, he basically felt pain too. From how Natakan and Brian describe their strong emotional connection, and just from interacting with them, one can really tell that they feel each other’s pain. On top of that, they each have and show true empathy for the pains of others’, friends and strangers alike.

What struck me most though about Natakan and Brian, is that not just do they feel each other’s pain, rather that they truly and utterly feel each other’s joy. The enjoyment they each find in the happiness of the other is truly inspiring. The pleasure they find in just knowing that the other is content and happy is enviable. And again, each of them finds true joy in the happiness of others too.

So Natakan and Brian, thank you for sharing these important lessons with me and with all of us. I bless you and pray, that you will henceforth always experience only joy, happiness and pleasure in the bonds of mutual love.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Spirit of Calm Humility

This past weekend I married Kamilla and Naum, a great couple, who know each other from the time they were kids. Their parents actually knew each other back in Eastern Europe. Their humble personalities reminded me of a story I read many years ago, and it is with that story that I began my personal remarks to them:

Let me recount a short story. Sometime in the 1950s, David Ben Gurion summoned Shneur Zalman Shazar (Israel’s future president) to his office, and he told him that he wanted to send him to the Soviet Union as Israel’s ambassador. Shazar, who was a loyal public servant, immediately accepted. Ben Gurion then said to him, “Shazar, you must understand that the Israeli ambassador to the Soviet Union has to know how to keep quiet.” Shazar assured the prime minister that this would not be a problem. Ben Gurion then explained, “Shazar, I am not sure you get it. The Israeli ambassador to the Soviet Union has to be so quiet, that the whole world hears how quiet he is!”

Now, as many here know, from having lived there, Ben Gurion was telling Shazar to do this for geopolitical reasons. However, there is a lesson here regarding a very important quality for life, in general, for the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and for Houston in the 2010s. I believe that Kamilla and Naum exemplify this quality of humility that Ben Gurion was talking about. You see, Kamilla and Naum are humble individuals, who don't spend their time telling you how great they are. They are too busy putting their noses to the grindstone, and getting the job done. They are busy continuing to build their relationship. They are busy living fulfilling and richly meaningful lives, as individuals and as a couple.

When you interact with Kamilla and Naum, that all comes through. They just have what I would call a spirit of calm humility. You get the idea that you can count on them. You understand that these are serious and reliable people. You realize that if you pay attention you might learn something too.

So, Kamilla and Naum, hold on to that. You have something going, as individuals and as a couple, that not everyone has. Keep working hard, keep growing, and keep on setting an example for what a really meaningful and rich life can and should look like.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

If You Ever Get a Second Chance in Life

A few weeks ago I posted my remarks from Meredith and Bert’s wedding. At their wedding I met Howard, Bert’s brother, and his fiancĂ©e, Abigail. They loved the ceremony, and they asked me to their private ceremony on the Island of St. Martin. Here the remarks I shared with them earlier this week:

Abigail and Howard, at Meredith and Bert's wedding, I talked about fate vs. destiny, the things that just happen to us vs. the true choices we make. That evening and in subsequent conversations you talked about the various twists and turns of fate and destiny, in your lives as individuals and as a couple. There was no mistaking the sense of true destiny you now share in your relationship.

This brought to mind one of the most inspiring messages I ever read. The funny thing is that having pored for years over ancient texts in yeshivah and scholarly modern texts in academia, I found this in a book by a biker, Lance Armstrong's book, It's Not About the Bike - My Journey Back to Life. He recounts his first words to journalists on the Champs Elysees, after winning his first Tour de France, "If you ever get a second chance in life, you've got to go all the way!" "If you ever get a second chance in life, you've got to go all the way!"

I, personally, have found these words tremendously meaningful. They could describe many aspects of my life the last few years. If I may be so bold, from our discussions I perceive that this could be a motto for you as a couple too. Now, this saying really has two parts to it. The first part speaks of the recognition of the fact that you have been given a second chance. It is at that moment that you take mere fate, and recognize that it could give you a shot at destiny. The second part of the saying is the crux; you take action, seize your destiny, just as you did, and go all the way. It would be no exaggeration to say that this is the only way one can truly lay claim to having lived a fulfilling life.

So, standing here, just the three of us, I challenge you and encourage you to continue living your life in such a fashion. Resolutely, grab on to and savor life together, and go all the way.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lucky

I recently wrote personal remarks for two different weddings based on aspects from the song “Lucky”. One wedding was a few weeks ago, and the other is yet to come. Here are the remarks from a few weeks ago:

When I was contemplating Allison and Zach's relationship, I said to myself, wow, this is one lucky couple. The words of a song by Jason Mraz immediately came to mind. Mraz, in a beautiful duet by Colbie Cailet sings words that could have been written just for Allison and Zach. “Lucky I'm in love with my best friend, lucky to have been where I have been… They don't know how long it takes waiting for a love like this, every time we say goodbye I wish we had one more kiss. I'll wait for you, I promise you I will… Lucky to be coming home again, lucky we're in love in every way, lucky to have stayed where we have stayed, lucky to be coming home someday…”

Why do I say this could have been written just for them? Well, there are a number of reasons. Allow me to enumerate the top two. First of all, this is just a lucky couple, not lucky in the sense of random dumb luck, rather lucky in the sense of fortunate to be surrounded by family and friends that not only care deeply for them, but even brought them together.

Second, these are not two individuals that just go with the flow. They are much more reflective than the average person. This allowed them to have the type of deep discussions they had at the beginning of their relationship, a type most couples get too much later. This truly enabled them to become best friends in the true sense of the word, at the same time that they became lovers. They did not stop there. It is well evident that they continued and continue to this day to help each other grow, and so with three years under their belt they share a closeness that some couples do not achieve in many many years together.

So, Allison and Zach, thank you. Thank you for reminding us just how lucky we can be if we are so fortunate to find our soul mates, and how we can help each other grow, and reach our full potential as individuals and as a couple. Hold on to that. Now look into each other’s eyes. As the years go by, make sure you take a moment here and there to stop and look into each other’s eyes like you are now. Then wherever you are, whatever is going on in your life, say to yourself, say to each other, in the words of Jason Mraz, “I keep you with me in my heart; you make it easier when life gets hard; lucky I'm in love with my best friend.”

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Good and Simple Life

This last Saturday I officiated the wedding of Sarah and Brian in Corpus Christi. This special couple was brought together through the tragedy of the death of a mutual friend. In fact, they saw him as their honorary best man. Here are the personal remarks I shared with them during their ceremony:

Sarah and Brian were brought together by tragedy. A dear mutual friend lost his life. Anyone who has experienced such tragedy knows that one of the basic human reactions one invariably has is to ask why. Why did this happen to my loved one? This question can nag and gnaw at the heart, and therein lies a problem. You see, try as we may, with a loss of such finality, we can never really find an answer to that question. Depending on one’s theological stance, there may be no reason, or they may be a reason that is not in the realm of human understanding. To us it is all the same. We are left in the dark.

There is great hope though, if you follow the example of Sarah and Brian. What Sarah and Brian did, in words and in action, was realize that moving forward entailed asking another very different question, and that is, what now. Now that I have experienced tragedy, what shall I do? I can’t and never will know why it happened, but what meaning shall I give to that tragedy? What meaning shall I give to my life henceforth? This is a question that is entirely answerable; this is a question that we must answer, each one of us.

Now each person has to give his or her own answer to what their life’s meaning will be. That said, there can be a basic common sketch that most of us can follow on the road to true meaning, a sketch Sarah and Brian have tried to live by. We can find true meaning through loving, through being loved, through savoring life to the fullest, and through being of service to others. Examine Sarah and Brian’s lives as individuals and as a couple, and you will see these four threads create the fabric of what Brian aptly calls, “a good and simple life.”

So, Sarah and Brian, thank you. Thank you for reminding us how one can and should live. May you and may we continue on that path to truly meaningful lives of loving, being loved, savoring life and being of service to others.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Choosing Your Destiny

This last Saturday I co-officiated Meredith and Bert’s wedding in Beaumont, Texas. What a wonderful and warm couple! It was heart-warming to see what tremendous nachas Bert’s 84 year old dad, Irvin, got from my joining the celebration. Dr. Harland Merriam, Meredith’s pastor and a real pro, was a pleasure to work with too, and it was clear that a good time was had by all. Here are some of the words I shared with the couple during the ceremony:

Now, of course, I stand here at a disadvantage to Dr. Merriam, who baptized the bride, while I have known the couple for only a short while. I was struck though by a fascinating aspect of their love story. You see, one thing that both will tell you about the time they met is that neither Meredith nor Bert were looking for a serious relationship. They were co-workers, who found they had some common interests, and developed a friendship. It was only later that they started to date and fell in love.

What that reminded me of is one of the most important lessons for life, and specifically for married life. We have very limited control over our circumstances. If there is anything we as a nation and as individuals have learned over the course of the last two or three years, it is that there are many things in life that we have no control over whatsoever. We do however have control over how we choose to relate to our circumstances. In other words, we cannot choose our fate, but we can choose our destiny.

Meredith and Bert, you had no control over how you met; that was merely fate. But what is it we wish every couple – happiness – that was in your hands. You chose your destiny – to stand before us today to commit yourselves to each other for the rest of your lives. So, Meredith and Bert, thank you. Thank you for reminding us of this important lesson. Now, look into each other’s eyes. As the years go by, take a moment here and there, to do what you are doing right now. Take a moment to forget your circumstances, let what is around you melt away, and remember this very moment, remember your destiny.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Raya Mihaimana – a Wife of Noble Character Who Can Find?

Two weeks ago I officiated Raya and Adam’s wedding in West Orange, New Jersey. Though I go all over to officiate weddings, I have to admit I was surprised when Adam first contacted me. After all, contacting a Dallas rabbi to come to the New York City Metropolitan area to officiate a wedding, would seem tantamount to Eskimos asking the same rabbi to bring them some of that renowned pure Dallas snow… It is not that Raya and Adam had not looked; they – as many of my couples – had looked for a rabbi who would officiate their interfaith wedding, and really work with them to create the personalized ceremony they were looking for. They truly believed that the ceremony was what would “make” their wedding. Everything else would make it pretty. After speaking to Adam for just a few minutes, I knew this was a special couple, that I would love working with, and Adam knew he had found the rabbi for his wedding!

Raya and Adam are both extremely talented attorneys. Adam works in private practice. Raya who was born in Bulgaria, came to this country when she was twelve years old, and today she works for the Obama Administration. (As Yakov Smirnoff would no doubt say, “What a country!”) As some may know, while some people collect coins or shells, I collect languages, in which I can recite the Priestly Blessing. I have already blessed couples with this blessing in Spanish, French, and Arabic. Raya was kind enough to not only transliterate the verses from the Cyrillic Bulgarian characters for me, but also leave me a message with the blessing on my phone, so I could practice the pronunciation. So, I was able, much to the gratification of Raya’s parents to bless the couple in Hebrew, English and Bulgarian.

Here are the personal remarks I shared with Raya, Adam and their guests:

When I first spoke to Adam and Raya, I told them that her name in Aramaic, an ancient sister language of Hebrew, means wife, and that sometimes the adjective Mihaimana would be appended to it, which means “trusted” or “faithful”. As Raya has told me, Adam will frequently joke that she is already his wife, which beautifully fits with the meaning of her name. Talk to them about their relationship, and you can really tell that the foundation of Raya and Adam’s love is a deep friendship and a profound mutual trust, which fits the bill of that whole phrase, Raya Mihaimana.

Raya and Adam both talk about how deep not only their relationship is, but how their relationships with family and loved ones are so important to them, so central to their lives. Raya says that living in diverse places, taught her that “home” is not defined by a location, but by people. “Home” to her is being with those she loves and cares about. Home to her, in her day to day life, now has a name, Adam. Adam speaks of seeing “family as the lens through which love and happiness shine brightest; it is an uncompromising cloak of unity draped over those who selflessly love one another.” He says Raya has become part of that family experience for him, and how that has increased his love for her even more.

Adam movingly writes about how spending time with his family and with Raya is more important to him than material possessions or worldly experiences. This reminded me of the poetic words attributed to the legendary Chaldean king, Lemuel, quoting words of wisdom his mother gave him about the ideal wife. These can be turned around easily to fit the description of the ideal husband too:

A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies.
Her husband has full trust in her
and lacks nothing of value.
She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.

So, Raya and Adam, thank you for reminding us of these important lessons. We hope and pray that you will continue to live your lives by these values. With the hustle and bustle of daily life, that can sometimes be a tall order. So, here is a suggestion. Look into each other’s eyes. (Yes, now…) As the years go by, take a moment here and there to look into each other’s eyes, like you are now, and remind yourselves of what is most important in life – not material possessions, or worldly trappings, rather your mutual love, your trust in each other, and your relationships with your family and loved ones.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Where There is Love There is Life: A Hin-Jew Wedding in Texas

One of the most unique weddings I have officiated was Shreeti and Jon's. I co-officiated with Shreeti's family's lay pundit (Hindu priest), Jaysurya ("Jay") Upadhyaya. It was fascinating to see how these two faiths, one Western and one Eastern, came together in one ceremony, and how many parallels exist between the wedding rituals of both.

The ceremony began at the entrance, with Shreeti's mother waving a wand over Jon to cast away spirits. This Hindu tradition is similar to the Jewish tradition of beginning the ceremony with the bride and groom's mothers leading the bride around the groom to similarly protect him. In accordance with Hindu tradition, Jon then broke a clay pot to symbolically remove any obstacles to the marriage.

The ceremony itself was held under a mandap, a Hindu ceremonial canopy that turns the whole area under it into a symbolic altar. This served also as the Jewish chuppah, which symbolizes the bride and groom's new home. Interestingly, both faiths center around the home, rather than the house of worship, which means that home and altar are very much one and the same.

At various points during the Hindu portions of the ceremony, people made offerings to different deities. This usually involves Sanskrit chanting by the pundit, the tossing of the offering into fire and the marking of the body with paste. These are very important parts of the ceremony, as the favor of the deities is seen as central to a life of happiness for the new family being created under the mandap. The Jewish portions of the ceremony do not involve offerings, but do involve the chanting of blessings in Hebrew. I opened the Jewish part of the ceremony with traditional, welcoming blessings and towards the end blessed the couple with the Priestly Blessing.

In a Jewish wedding, parents and loved ones are brought under the chuppah with the bride and groom. This is true of a Hindu wedding too. Shreeti's parents spent part of the ceremony under the mandap, made an offering and even washed Shreeti and Jon's feet, beseeching him to treat their daughter as an equal partner. Later in the ceremony, family members from both sides, including Jon's parents, joined Shreeti and Jon under the mandap, and made offerings, which the couple, circling a small altar four times, threw into the fire. The circling symbolizes the couple's commitment to remaining true to one's values, providing for the family, obtaining fulfillment and achieving enlightenment. Every time they circled the altar, siblings and cousins, who had surrounded the mandap, pelted them with flower petals. Later, after the ceremony, with their families once again surrounding them, the couple would sign the Jewish ketubah, a document where they would commit themselves to essentially the same ideals celebrated while ringing the altar.

One of the most striking resemblances between the wedding traditions of both faiths is the centrality of the number seven. The Hindu tradition has the Satapadi or Seven Vows, and the Jewish tradition has the Seven Blessings. Jon laid Shreeti's big toe on each of seven decorated shells respectively, while Jay chanted the Satapadi, swearing the couple to live with honor and respect, be happy, share in all, not forget their elders, be charitable, be peaceful and love and sacrifice for each other. I followed with the chanting of the Seven Blessings, which celebrate creation in general, creation of man, creation of woman, the hope of return to Zion and the love and happiness of the bride and groom and their loved ones.

Both traditions include the bride and groom sharing sweet food (in Hinduism) or sweet wine (in Judaism) to symbolize everyone's prayer that the couple will enjoy a sweet life together. Shreeti and Jon shared candy and dried fruit, in accordance with the Hindu tradition.

Jon then put a necklace on Shreeti's neck, the Hindu equivalent to putting a ring on his bride's finger. (Both faiths, being in their traditional form patriarchal, have the groom putting the jewelry on the bride and not vice versa.) Shreeti and Jon then read very meaningful vows they wrote, after which they exchanged rings, reciting (in Hebrew and in English) the traditional Jewish consecration formula, as well as a verse from the Song of Songs.

After I declared them husband and wife, Jon ended the ceremony, just as he started it – by breaking something. This time, in accordance with Jewish tradition, he broke a glass. I explained it as symbolizing the breaking down of barriers between different cultures and faiths – a very fitting explanation for this wedding.

How did Shreeti and Jon, coming from traditions, far apart geographically and theologically, "pull off" such a seamless ceremony, where it was well evident that all present felt so validated and comfortable? They communicated their plans to their families, and sought their feedback. Their parents gave them honest and considerate feedback while respecting the couple's wishes. Shreeti and Jon chose officiants who were open to learning about each other's faiths and communicated well themselves. These officiants were keen on making the various parts of the ceremony mesh well together. Most importantly, while each family expressed their wishes to observe various rituals from their respective traditions, it seemed like they were even more careful to make sure that the other side's wishes were being met.

It was really heart-warming to observe how concerned these people were regarding each other's feelings. It has been said that true love means caring about your loved one's feelings, as you much as you care about yours. This couple, their families and all involved showed this type of love, and as Mahatma Gandhi once said, "Where there is love, there is life!"


The bride and groom under the mandap, which also served as the chuppah. (Photo Courtesy of Chavvon & Larissa Photography - www.chavvon.com)

© Copyright 2011 – Rabbi David S. Gruber – All Rights Reserved. This article was first published on www.interfaithfamily.com

Monday, January 17, 2011

Humility – An Essential Quality

I spent the last weekend with Lauren and Ryan and their families. Here are some words I shared with this wonderful couple:

I wanted to focus on one particular quality that I feel is one of the most important for a person to have, one that is in short supply, but which Lauren and Ryan have been blessed with – humility. The first thing that humility allows you and encourages you to do is to not take yourself too seriously. Not taking yourself too seriously is, well, a serious issue! Why? This is easiest to understand through the negative. Think about someone you know, and we all know this someone, who takes him or herself way too seriously. Now you understand why that is important. Humble people, like this couple, who can laugh and joke about themselves, are much more pleasant to be around.

Humility also means that it is much easier for you to be self reflective. Lauren and Ryan definitely have shown in their lives apart and together, that they are able to take stock of who they are and where they are in life. This is vital, since as they and many others have experienced in the last two or three years, life will come at you, and throw you some curveballs from time to time. If you are nimble in your ability to self reflect, you will be more adaptable to different and new situations. You will be able to take appropriate action, whereas the person who has difficulty with self reflection will still be frozen in the past.

The most important aspect of humility though, in my opinion, is a true sense of wonder. When you are humble, and don’t think more of yourself than you should, you are able to open your eyes, look around you, and discover a wonderful and fascinating world out there. You will by necessity live a life of adventure and discovery. (This is true, by the way, on a personal and national level.) Lauren and Ryan are very explicit about this aspect of their life. It is clear that they try to take in the world together, and live their lives in a way, that, I think, is the best way to live it. They live their lives with the clear recognition that life is a journey where one needs to concentrate not on the destination, but on the journey itself.

So, Lauren and Ryan, thank you. Thank you for reminding us just how special life can be, if we have the right outlook and perspective. Hold on to that. Now look into each other’s eyes. As the years go by, make sure you take a moment here and there to stop and look into each other’s eyes like you are now, and wherever you are, whatever is going on in your lives, remind yourselves, remind each other, to seize the day, and live your lives together to the fullest, like you are today.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Relationships Are What Makes the World Go Round

Yvonne and Reed, one of the great things about working with a more “seasoned” couple like you, Yvonne and Reed, is that you have gained some wisdom that comes from having been “around the block” once or twice. You have learned some lessons that one cannot learn in the classroom, rather need to be experienced in the school of life. One of the central things you emphasized in our discussions is that while you have each worked very hard get to where you are today, your relationship has reminded you what is really important in life – your relationships, the love that you have found with each other, and the love you have for your children.

Now, you may say, duh! If, however, you have paid attention to what is going on in the world today, you will understand how much this message is a needed one for us all. You see, modern life can sometimes make us forget that material possessions are just tools, that they cannot really fulfill our dreams. We sometimes forget that it is our connections and relationships that make us who we are. We sometimes forget as individuals and as a society, we need place supreme value on our spouses, our children, and our friends, so we may find true lasting meaning and happiness in our lives.

So, Yvonne and Reed, thank you for reminding us of these important lessons. We hope and pray that you will hold on to these important values. With the hustle and bustle of life, that can sometimes be a tall order. So, here is a suggestion. Look into each other’s eyes. (Yes, now…) As the years go by, take a moment here and there to look into each other’s eyes like you are now, and remind yourselves of what is most important in life – your relationship with each other, your connection to your loved ones, and your caring for others.