A while ago my rabbi asked a group of us if we had ever had the experience of feeling our prayers soar up to heaven. Most of us, myself included, had some point of reference for that feeling. But I can think of no prior experience so joyous as the one I had last week.
I was attending my first wedding since prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, fresh from a breakneck week of work, panic over getting my papers to cross the border into Canada, forgetting numerous items including my regular mask and both of my computer chargers at home, and hours of solo driving that included an overnight at a sketchy hotel in Erie, PA, and a 15-lane traffic jam entering metro Toronto.
Yet when I took my place under the chuppah to recite the sixth of the seven wedding blessings, it all melted away. There are times when we put every ounce of effort we can into praying, where all our muscles and all of our breath goes into each word. Then there are times like that moment when we simply open our mouths and our souls come flowing out effortlessly
Sameah t’samah re’im ha-ahuvim k’samehakha y’tzirkha be’Gan Eden mikedem. Barukh atah Hashem, m’sameah hatah v’khalah.
“Bestow complete joy on these beloved friends just as you made your creations happy in the Garden of Eden of old. Blessed are you God, who makes the bride and groom rejoice.”
Later, at my table, a non-Jewish guest remarked at how intensely joyful and energetic the celebration was, and on the fact that the purpose of a Jewish wedding was not to put on a show for the guests, but for the guests to imitate God in creating joy for the couple.
Hours later, alone in my car on the QEW in the rain, I drove toward the border with the sound of that blessing, and the dancing, and the band singing the beautiful, plaintive tune of the Piazetzner Niggun during the ceremony, all echoing in my head. It reminded me of a comment I had seen just the previous day in Siddur Lev Shalem, from the Hassidic master Simcha Bunim, that the phrase haboher b’shirei zimra, that desires poetic songs, should be read as haboher b’shay’rei zimra, that desires remnants of song. Even more than God wants us to sing and rejoice, God wants us to carry with us the echoes of those songs, the ones that linger with us even after the sound of the music has faded away. I was bringing remnants of song home with me from Canada, treasures I would not need to declare at the border and that CBP could not confiscate if they tried.
Just as Simcha Bunim opened a whole new meaning by changing one vowel, I thought of the fine line, literally, separates re’im, dear friends, neighbors, loving companions, from ra’im, bad things or bad people. And yet changing that vowel does not shatter the joy but deepens it.
Sameah t’samah ra’im – cause the bad things to be joyful. God, and our friends, can turn sorrow into joy, by bringing laughter, by forcing us to look out at the rainbow that formed over my neighborhood the afternoon of Shabbat Noach, by bringing a baby to a shiva minyan. Time elapsed can cause the apparent disasters to morph into fond memories of indignities suffered and endured. Perspective can allow us to see the good that we displayed in the face of the real tragedies and unspeakable evil, and derive a measure of joy from being surrounded by such worthy people.
Ra’im ha-ahuvim – bad things which are beloved to us. How many people do we fall in love with, as friends or as life companions, who have become what they are only because of the experiences that have tested them? And how many people do we love, despite, or even because of, their qualities that still cry out for betterment, but we love them anyway? I may have already written a piece in which I quote my friend Chuck Diener’s wedding wishes to my wife and me, regarding the broken glass, “Beloved, even your imperfections are holy to me, even they I love.” But it bears repeating.
And finally, re’im ha’ahuvim, not with an ‘ayin in re’im, but an aleph. Not friends or loved ones, but mirrors. Our friends, and even moreso our spouses, are our mirrors. They reflect back at us our true selves, and more importantly the version of ourselves that the world sees, but tempered by the love they feel for us, like the mirror of Erised in the Harry Potter novels. When we stand as a community under the chuppah celebrating a new marriage in Israel, the couple wrapped in white like it’s Yom Kippur (and in many circles just as hungry, having fasted all day), we see for a moment the best versions of ourselves, not driven there by guilt but drawn there by hope and joy.
We have suffered, individually, and collectively, so much over the past 19 months, and before. I recommend vaccines, prescribe medications, urge people to go to therapy and exhort them to eat well and exercise regularly. But I am now sending you all out on doctor’s orders for something you can’t find in the pharmacy. Go rejoice, and make each other rejoice, in the company of your beloved friends, in the face of whatever bad might have befallen you, or that you might have done, and see your inherent goodness reflected in their faces. We are long overdue for it.