Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Most Incompatible Compatible Couple

This last weekend, I officiated two weddings, which were both interfaith and intercultural. Friday night, Andrea, an Ecuadorian Catholic married Adam, a Jew from Las Vegas, in her hometown of Guyaquil. Sunday afternoon, Nse (pronounced as if there is an extra e in front of the n), a devout Christian nurse born in the US to Nigerian parents, who grew up in Nigeria, married Hadar, a secular Jew, and one of the most prominent physicians in Israel. (The first time I spoke to Hadar, we spoke in Hebrew, but he used the English title phrase of this blog entry to describe them as a couple.)

Both weddings were very special. The second one had one of the most fascinating audiences one could ever see in one place, with couples in traditional African garb seated beside young Israeli girls in summer dresses. I officiated the ceremony, and was joined at the end of it by Nse’s pastor, Reverend Dr. Gabriel Nwumba, who gave a rousing sermon punctuated with lively Amens from the audience, and then together we blessed the couple with the Priestly Blessing. Perhaps one of the most poignant moments was when Nse’s unassuming nine year old daughter read the words of Ruth to Naomi, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you dwell, I will dwell, your people will be my people, and your God will be my God…” Hadar and many others were visibly moved to tears.

Here are the words I shared with everyone:

The more I thought about Nse and Hadar, the more I understood that this couple is really teaching us a double lesson. First of all, they teach us a sorely needed lesson in today’s broken world, and that is, that we need not let differences of background, race or religion stand between us, and prevent us from loving each and every human being. After all, these two individuals come from different countries, races and faiths, and yet they have such a strong and powerful bond of love between them. The thing is that that observation caused me, as is typical amongst us rabbis, to ask another question! With all the differences between them, how do they do it? What is their secret?

It became very clear to me that this couple had realized what few couples fully realize, and that is that every marriage is an intermarriage. Regardless of who we fall in love with, regardless of who we marry, we are marrying someone who has had a different set of experiences and has a different personality. Therefore, you cannot put your love and your marriage on “auto-pilot”. In order to forge love into a successful marriage, you must engage in open conversation and communication, carefully and deeply consider your differences, and commit to a loving relationship that will overcome these differences. This is Nse and Hadar’s secret. This is how they do it!

It is also very clear that Nse and Hadar have a deep appreciation for the fact that marriage is not a one shot deal, rather this it is just the beginning of a journey of mutual understanding and compromise. In fact, to symbolize this, some ministers will ask married couples in the congregation to hold hands while listening to the vows of the bride and groom, and silently recommit themselves to each other, at that time.

Thank you, Nse and Hadar, for setting an example for the rest of us in showing that in all of our human relationships, we can and should love our fellow human being, regardless of our differences. Thank you also for teaching us that every relationship is a work in progress, and that we need to commit every day to bettering our interpersonal relationships with all, and most specifically with our mates and lovers. Hold on to that. Wake up every morning with the resolve to cherish each other and the wonderful life you have built and continue to build together every day, and I have no doubt, your bond will remain unbreakable.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Two of My Favorite Doctors – Jenny and Jon

Here are the words I shared recently at Jenny and Jon’s wonderful wedding in New Orleans.

When I sat down to write my remarks, I couldn’t help but reflect on the circumstances of Jenny and Jon meeting, how their relationship started and how their love flourished from there. You see, I try to meet with each couple I work with about three or four times before their wedding, so I can really get to know them. I always start my first discussion with a couple with a rather basic question, “Tell me about yourselves, and how you met?” Well, this may surprise you, but none of the other 65 couples I have had such meetings with in the last two years, began their answer to the second part of that question with the words, “We met over a bone box…”

Now, beyond the humor, when you talk to Jenny and Jon, you understand that there is a rather deep and serious side to this. Though Jenny and Jon come from different backgrounds, and have had different life stories, they seem to have more in common in terms of their basic beliefs regarding how one should live one’s life, than many other couples out there. This is particularly exemplified by their career choices, and the rationale for these choices. It is clear that they chose medicine, not just because they thought that they had the aptitude and inclination for it, but first and foremost, due to the fact that they really wanted to help people. On top of that, they not only chose the healing profession, rather with some disregard to their own bottom line, they opted for the front line of medicine, to work in family medicine and physical medicine and rehabilitation. In an era, where many of us are faced with a medical world that can be cold, scary and full of technical mumbo jumbo, they have chosen to be the ones, who with a reassuring tone in their voices, will hold our hands, help us make sense of it all, and make some of the pain and fear go away.

I have not known Jenny and Jon for that long, but it seems to me that it is this very sense of caring, compassion and love for others that drew them to each other at first, and cemented the foundation for a true love story. On this foundation they built a genuine relationship of understanding, communication and trust. In this each one has found that soul mate, with whom one can talk for hours, and with whom one can just sit in silence, not saying a word, and still enjoy a tremendous sense of tranquility and peace. It is this relationship that we celebrate today, and really just make official something that is already there, so deeply rooted in the life of the couple.

Jenny and Jon, thank you for reminding me and us of what our priorities can and should be. Thank you for instilling in what we are doing here today true and deep meaning. Hold on to that. Wake up every morning, look into each other’s eyes with the resolve to continue to cherish that happiness, friendship and love you have found with each other, and that sense of caring, empathy and compassion you have for others, and I have no doubt, your bond will remain unbreakable.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Wise Student - Introduction

I always begin the personal remarks portion of my wedding ceremonies with the following paragraph:

Friends, one of the most fascinating things about the Jewish tradition is that a Jewish scholar, be he, or for that matter she, the greatest scholar of his or her generation, is referred to as a talmid chacham, literally a wise student. That is because Judaism values the idea of life long learning. Whenever I officiate a wedding, I ask myself, this couple, being unique individuals, what can I learn from them, what are they, consciously or unconsciously, teaching me, and indeed us?

My daughter, who is fifteen and a half years old, has a phrase she uses, whenever dad gets kind of mushy. She will stop what she is doing, and dramatically announce, “Corny alert!” I am sure she would react the same way to the above paragraph, but let’s face it, if there is anywhere you can and should be a little mushy and corny, it should be at a wedding…

Beyond the “corny” aspect of the above, I do mean what I say. There is, after all, one approach amongst men and women of the cloth, that holds that we should impart to the masses wisdom from on high. I can think of specific such clergy, who one can tell, think they have much to teach, but not much to learn from their fellow human beings. I have always begged to differ. The main theme that ran through the graduate school program in educational leadership that I attended was what is referred to in flowery language as a “learner centered approach”. This is an academic and fancy way of stating the obvious, its not about you the teacher, its about the learner, and if you follow that approach, watch out, you may learn something too! This is probably what the Talmudic sage, Chanina ben Hama, was referring to when he said, "I have learned much from my teachers, from my colleagues even more, but from my students I have learned the most." (Talmud Bavli Tractate Ta'anit 7a)

This approach demands a degree of true humility, which can be a challenge at times for people, who are referred to at times as “(wo)men of God”. (I add the word “true”, mindful of what Golda Meir allegedly said to Moshe Dayan once, “Don’t act so humble; you’re not that great…”) It is worth it though, as I believe that one’s life can become so much richer, if one treats every interaction with others as a potential “teachable moment”. Conversely, I always feel a little sorry for people, who due to the fact they think they have all the answers, go through life, and miss out on valuable lessons they could be learning from others of all walks of life.

The main reason I got into this “trade” of the rabbinate and education is because I love people, interacting with them, building relationships, and learning together. This is why when I officiate a wedding, I spend time to get to know the couple, build a relationship with them, and together build the ceremony around them, rather than shoehorn them into some preconceived idea of a ceremony I already have. The wedding, after all, is not about me, it is about them. Indeed, beyond life lessons, some of the best ideas for things to include in ceremonies come from my couples! Therefore, it only makes sense to share with the audience what I have learned from these unique individuals.

In this blog, which I intend (fingers crossed!) to update every two weeks, I intend to share with you, a slightly larger audience, some of the lessons I have picked up along the way, from the wonderful couples I have been and am fortunate to work with. In that spirit, let the learning begin!