Thursday, January 21, 2016

Wherever You Go, I Will Go

Wednesday night I officiated Kim and Bill’s wedding at Blue Mesa Grill in Addison, Texas. Here are the words I shared with them and their guests:

One of the most beautiful stories of the Bible is the story of Ruth. Naomi, the Judean mother-in-law of the Moabite Ruth, is trying to convince the latter NOT to accompany her, as she returns to Judea, a land foreign to Ruth. Here is Ruth's reply: "Do not entreat me to leave you, to return from following you, for wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God."

Wow. Pretty powerful, huh? Nice sweet message, and hey we could just smile and move on.

Not so fast.

This story wholly contained in a tiny eponymous book – if you actually read it, and not massage or distort its message – is not just powerful; it is actually explosive.

You see, if you listen to the way many people speak of the Bible today, you get the impression that it is a methodically edited book, written from one solid organized point of view. And certainly, if you believe that it contains the inerrant word of God, you may need to accept this as a prerequisite. And you can pretty much live with that perspective as long as you are very careful not to do one critical thing: actually read it. Because, if you actually read the whole Bible, there is no possible way could come to the conclusion that it was all written by the same author.

Now, much of this is observable on a micro level, like there being two contradictory stories of how the world was created. Where this stands out, though, the most is on a macro level. You have entire books that are basically written as polemics, books that argue against another person's premise or point of view. Now, the authors did not realize these books would end up together with the books they were critical of, in what we call, the Bible, but the fact they did gives them even more delicious power. The three books that really stand out in this respect are Jonah, Ruth and Ecclesiastes.

Ruth is less open critic and more stealth bomber. It is likely directed at one specific figure, Ezra. Think old style fire and brimstone Baptist preacher, only not as fun-loving. Ezra, in his eponymous book, arrives in Judea, which is being slowly rebuilt under the Persian Empire. Before he leaves Persia, he secures the king's permission to basically establish a theocracy in Judea, based on his own religious positions. When he arrives he sees that the pioneers, who returned from the Babylonian exile, are working hard to reestablish their community. They are getting along pretty well with the other folks, who never left the Land of Israel. They make friends, work on projects together, and fall in love too.

Well, says Ezra, we can't have any of that! Like the old sitcom record scratch, he arrives and sets out to do away with this openness and harmony. He knows the enemy when he sees it. Lack of natural resources? No. Inequality? No. Poverty? No. People of different ethnic communities working, socializing, and marrying each other? Bingo! He then sets out on a campaign to not just discourage intermarriage, but force the dissolution of existing intermarriages.

Now, the Book of Ruth is written by someone who sees Ezra's actions, and gets good and pissed. He (maybe she?) is especially upset, because he knows that Ezra, who tries to present himself as a defender of an ancient and true tradition, is really anything but. Before Ezra, beyond garden variety xenophobia, no Judean ever said anything about intermarriage being a huge problem. That is probably why so many of the Bible's heroes not only intermarried; they intermarried and no one even commented on it! So this unknown author writes a story, set in what to him are ancient times, to set the record straight.

Once again, Ruth, the heroine of the story, is a Moabite woman. The Judeans in the story are all background figures. First, due to famine, Naomi and her husband and sons move to Moab, and the sons marry Moabite women. The male figures all pass away, and Naomi hears things have gotten better back in Judea. She sets on a journey to go back, trying to persuade Ruth to stay in Moab. As we heard though, Ruth will have nothing of it. She vows to stay with Naomi.

When they return to Judea, Naomi masterminds Ruth catching the eye of her husband's rich and kind relative, Boaz. In a beautiful romantic story, Ruth, a proto-feminist, if you will, ends up proposing to Boaz. The elders of the town not only accept this union of Judean man and foreign woman: they embrace it! They bless Ruth and Boaz, and pray that they should produce worthy heirs, just as the foreigner matriarchs of Israel, (hint hint says the author), did. The book ends with a kicker. Guess who this union produces? Yup, the true leader of Judah; not some scowling priest like Ezra, but ass-kicking, passionate poet and lover, King David, himself. Had Ezra had his way, David would never have been born.

This ancient story, this ancient argument, is, well, not so ancient, after all. The world has never lacked Ezras. In fact, one could argue that there is a little Ezra embedded in the genetic code of each of us. But look at what Kim and Bill, like Ruth’s author, teach us instead. It is hard to find two smarter, more talented people. As my dad sometimes puts it, between them they have more degrees than a thermometer. And I am talking about those degrees, where you get to put initials after your name! And, because they are smart, they have each been lifelong learners. Hell, Bill even stopped over in India for about twelve years just to widen the scope of his learning. And mention the Thai monarch to Kim, and one of the first things she will tell, as a Thai point of pride, is that he was born in a foreign country, THIS one. He is, in fact, the only monarch I know of who was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then attended Harvard!
Kim and Bill have treated new experiences, foreign and domestic, not as enemies, but as opportunities. And so, when they each wanted to meet someone, it did not matter that that person was of a different nationality, of a different faith, and spoke a different language. Who cares? Is this person good, kind, smart, caring, loving? Is this person a curious and thoughtful person? Do I feel like this person and I are meant to be? Do I know that, being together with this person will make my dreams come true? If the answers are yes, yes, yes, and hell yes, who cares about all the rest? If anything, it will make for a better, more interesting, and much more enriching partnership.

This message, inherent in the way Kim and Bill live their lives, as individuals and as a couple is important, critical, vital to the global village we live in today. And so, let us hold up Kim and Bill, as the example the elders saw in Ruth and Boaz: "May the Lord make the woman who is entering your house like Rachel and like Leah, both of whom built up the house of Israel, and prosper in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem." So may it be, so may it be…

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Multiplying Effect

Saturday evening I officiated Meredith and Marc’s wedding ceremony at the Marriott Legacy in Plano, Texas. Here are the remarks I shared with them and their guests:

Meredith describes the beginning of her relationship with Marc, straightforwardly, "There was a spark from the start! We had many things in common... I remember saying... 'You are the male version of me!'"
Meredith was referring to an ancient notion that existed in diverse cultures to explain the idea of romantic attraction, in general. These cultures, the Jewish tradition among them, imagined a primordial being, both male and female, that the Divine separated into two. It is that separation that causes each of us to yearn to connect and become whole.

However, if we listen more closely to Meredith and Marc, they add something that these ancient myths leave out. Marc says, "I felt such a strong connection with this beautiful lady, which I have never felt before with anyone else. I never knew what was missing in my life until I met Meredith." And Meredith adds, "I want to marry Marc as I feel like I have known him forever... I had never understood the meaning of soul mates until I met him."

What Meredith and Marc are saying here echoes the words of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner in an address to his students. He imagines that before coming into this world every couple was this one whole primordial being, which coming into this world was separated into two. They then unconsciously search for that long lost half. When they find each other, each joyously connect to that primordial partner.

Finally, Meredith and Marc introduce one more element beyond Aviner's elaboration. Rejoining one's long lost half has a multiplying effect. You learn from your other half, and that makes you better. In turn, together you equal more than the original whole. As Marc observes, "The love and devotion I see Meredith shows Brynn challenges me," and as Meredith says, "I am a better person for having Marc in my life. He... inspires me to be my best."

Friday, January 1, 2016

We Are Picking Each Other

Thursday night, New Year’s Eve, I officiated Elise and Dan’s wedding at Castle on the Lake, in Jacksonville, Texas. Here are the remarks I shared with them and their guests:

The best, most treasured learning is that that helps us uncover who we really are as human beings, what our values are, and how we can live out those values in our day to day lives. Elise and Dan not only embody this behavior; they come from families that set an example for them in this area.

In what we would call in the literary sciences, "foreshadowing", Elise tells us that “Dan grew up in a household that loved Jewish culture. I grew up in a family that loved Irish culture.” Both families learned about those other cultures, without having any hereditary ties to them. Dan's family admired the values upheld by Jewish tradition, as they are expressed in the American Jewish community - with hard work and devotion to learning. They also had great admiration for the Modern Jewish State. Elise's family admired the happiness, resiliency and to borrow a phrase from across the channel, the joie de vivre, of the Irish People.
When you grow up with a love for other cultures, an openness to the wider world, and a genuine interest in learning from other people, your life has the potential to become a journey of moral growth and maturation. Indeed, Elise say that her work, “merges my love for design with my love for psychology and understanding people and the way individuals think.” Dan, who, due to work, lived in Taiwan and now frequently travels to Israel, says “I’ve been on an eight-year journey since graduating college of expanding my mind, values, and worldview through experiences." 

And this immersion in moral growth and self improvement, as a way of life, was fundamental from the beginning of Elise and Dan's relationship. Indeed, Elise says that, “At the beginning of our relationship, Dan and I would spend endless hours discussing religion and our thoughts (about it)."

This deep contemplation and open exploration led her in short order to knowing that marrying Dan was in the cards. Here is what this commitment means to her: “Marriage means you stay individuals but become one. It is the ultimate sign of commitment to one another. Out of everyone in the world, we are picking each other... I know without a doubt that Dan is my soul mate."

Dan seconds that notion, and envisions in it the same continuing journey of mutual growth, that Elise so values, "I... make a real commitment to her and our future life together in front of our families, our friends, and our God. I put the first 30 years of my me-first life behind and discover my true self in selflessness. I reconnect to a joy and innocence from my youth, and make a promise to a beautiful, intelligent, kind, compassionate woman."