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.