Tag Archives: huppah

Of Gates and Other Interstitial Spaces

Just as the beautiful back shore curves around to the west there is an ancient looking gate.  It has a small wooden tile roof, covered with moss.  The wooden door is often open,  unlatched, in some way beckoning the passers by to a mythic inner sanctum.  A low stucco house can be glimpsed, a stone path, flowers English garden style running alongside.  The gate posts are large, even imposing, made of great stones cemented together long ago by an old world stonemason, his practiced eye picking and choosing for shape and size as he worked.

What is astonishing about any gate is that it can suddenly bring you from one world to another.  Remember the back of the closet in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy fumbling through old coats and scarves and suddenly walking along a snowy lane.  Or in Tolkien’s work the various gates that lead into the Mines of Moria or the Old Forest or the halls of the Elven King in Mirkwood.  The gate is an interstitial space, a kind of tunnel between two distinct areas, or even better a mystic link between one world and another.  On one side is what we know, where we dwell and walk and go about our day to day life.  But just beyond the gate is another world.  Of Magic and adventure, of mystery and the unknown, of gorgeous gardens and storm tossed seas, where otherworldly creatures might dwell, or time works differently, or the rain falls in a certain kind of way that we’ve never seen before.

There are gates in nature and gates in time as well.  When dawn comes or night falls, when the year turns, when the clouds of a great storm move swiftly through the sky as the weather clears, when we peer into the darkness as we stand on the edge of a wood, these are all gates of time and place and mind.  Death and birth are gates, perhaps of an altogether different kind, but gates nonetheless.gates

And there are gates in Judaism.  Three volumes of Talmud are called the First, Middle, and Last Gates.  The huppah in the wedding ceremony is a kind of gate, the bride and groom entering that space as single and emerging from it as a married couple.  We speak on Yom Kippur of the Gates of Prayer and how they close at the end of that sacred day, a moment marked by the Ne’ilah service.  There is a traditional Shabbat song, Hasidic in feel, with the following lyrics:  ‘the entire world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to fear.’

Every gate is a narrow bridge, linking one world to another.  Every gate is an opportunity to walk into a never before seen space.  Every gate leads from what is known to what is unknown.  Every gate opens before us a series of new possibilities.  Gates can be entered and bridges crossed.  The main thing is not to fear.


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Filed under Gloucester MA, High Holy Days, Jewish thought, liminal moments, mindfulness, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, transitions, Uncategorized

Crossing Over Into A New Year

I have for many years been fascinated by liminal spaces.  These are threshold places, where we transition from one state or status to another.  The huppah is one prime example.  The bride and groom enter the space of the huppah as single, and dwell in that liminal space for twenty minutes or so.  While they stand there, as the wedding liturgy is pronounced over them, their status changes, and when they emerge from the huppah they are not single anymore.

Mikveh is another liminal space in Jewish life.  A person enters the waters of the mikveh and they are not Jewish, but after immersion they return to their family as a full fledged Jew and member of the Jewish community.  The mikveh water is the threshold place where that transformation happens and the person crosses over from one state of being to another.

There are many other examples.  It is not a coincidence that the mezuzah is placed at the liminal space of a home, the place where we cross over from the outside world to our own homes and vice versa (in halachic (Jewish legal) language, from the ‘rishut ha’rabim’ to the ‘rishut ha’yachid’ – from the public to the private domain).

Judaism has also long been interested in liminal moments – points in time that mark a transition from one state to another.  Morning and evening services acknowledge the change from darkness to light and back again.  There is a moment when the workday week ends and Shabbat begins, and another moment that marks Shabbat’s conclusion and the beginning of ‘secular’ time.  Passover is a festival that uses sacred time to recall a liminal historical moment: when the Israelites left slavery behind and became free.  Shavuot also asks us to relive a cross over moment from Jewish history, when Torah came into the world, changing it forever.  Rosh Hashanah is perhaps Judaism’s transitional moment holiday par excellence, celebrating the ending of one year and the beginning of the next.

December 31st serves the same purpose in our secular lives.  New Year’s Eve is a holiday with far less gravitas than Rosh Hashanah.  It is commonly marked by a festive evening gathering, football games on TV, and a midnight champagne toast.  But it is a liminal moment in our year nonetheless, and we do feel the sense of wonderment that comes with the close of a year’s time in our lives.  We think back and we look forward, perhaps even making a resolution or two about what we hope the next year will hold.  More than anything else we wonder at the passage of time.  2018?!  That seems like an awfully big number.  Wasn’t it just the 1980s?  Am I really that old?  Actually, forget about me – are my children really that old?!  New Year’s Eve doesn’t necessarily help us understand how we got from here to there, but it does remind us that we have traveled through 365 days of life.  And that it does sometimes truly feel like it all happened in the blink of an eye.

The 19th Psalm captures Judaism’s sense of the sacred liminal moment:  “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands.  Day to day makes utterance, night to night speaks out.  There are no words whose sounds goes unheard, their voice carries to the ends of the earth, their words to the very end of the world…”

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, liminal moments, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Rosh Hashanah, seasons, Uncategorized

Here Comes the Bride

I am coming off a stretch of 5 weddings the last 6 Saturday nights.  You might think after a while it all becomes like an assembly line.  Arrive 20 minutes before the ceremony is scheduled to start.  Park the car.  Find where the bridal party is so the pre-ceremony rituals can be enacted.  Help the witnesses sign the ketubah.  Wait at the head of the procession line as the coordinator makes sure everything is ready to go and the right music is playing.  Walk down the isle.  Make sure everything on the table is there, ready for use – the wine, the kiddush cups, the glass to break.  Chant the prayers, sip the wine, exchange the rings, proclaim the vows, seven blessings, another sip of wine, wrap it up.  It doesn’t change.  For them it is (often) the first time, and hopefully the last.  For me?  I don’t even know.  I would guess 10-15 weddings a year, times 16 years in the rabbinate, would make around 200 weddings, give or take.

Amazingly, it never grows old.  I am not saying I enjoy the time demands, the schlepping out one Saturday night after another.  I don’t stay for the receptions – how could I?  But there is something about it that is incredibly compelling.  Two human beings see something in each other that enables them to say ‘I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”  The good, the bad.  The tough times and the easy ones.  The simhas and the sorrows.  You are the one.  There is something about you I trust so deeply, respect so fully, and love so completely that I think we can do this together, this life thing.  Even though I know it might not work out, I am willing to give it a try.

What a leap of faith it is to stand with another person at the Huppah!  It is so human, so incredibly audacious, so filled with joy and terror and hope and heart.  I think that is why God comes, why one of the Huppah’s symbolic meanings is God’s presence with the bride and groom.  What more compelling human moment could there be?  Even God is drawn to it, even God wants to witness it, to be connected to it.

And to share in it, to officiate at it, is one of the great privileges of the rabbinate, no question about it.  Powerful currents flow through the sacred space that the Huppah carves out.  From the bride and groom, their parents, their family and friends.  When you are in it, when it is happening, you can’t help but be caught up in it all.

I’ve had all kinds of crazy things happen at weddings.  A best man who didn’t speak English once threw the glass at the groom, not understanding my gestures to lay it down at the groom’s feet (it was a whisky tumbler, but everyone emerged OK!).  One time a best man forgot the wedding rings.  Left them in the hotel, which was not where the ceremony was.  We borrowed some from the attendees, right there during the ceremony.  I’ve had fainting brides (twice).  Fainting fathers of brides.  Not yet a fainting rabbi.  As I always say to the couples, regardless of what happens, at the end of that evening you are going to be married.  And they are, despite fainting, flying glasses and forgotten rings.

The moment that always gets me – every single time – is when the bride enters the room.  Everyone waits in anticipation.  The door opens with a dramatic flourish, and there she stands.  Emotion surges through the room.  I don’t know exactly what it is about that moment.  The dress?  The vision of the bride, in the distance, the veil, over her face?  I just don’t know, but it takes my breath away.  Every single time.


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