Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Four cups of marriage

Last night's wedding was part one of three pre-Pesach nuptials. Standing in front of the chupa, I noticed that the wedding and Pesach have a few things in common. A Jewish wedding ceremony is an orderly, step-by-step process, much like the 15-step programme of the Pesach Seder (seder means "order"). Both ceremonies are punctuated with wine. On Pesach night, you must drink four cups of wine and the bride and groom each sip wine twice under the wedding canopy, essentially making "four cups" in that process too.

It made me think that the Four Cups offer a good template for successful marriage.

Cup 1: Dedicate
The first cup of the Seder is used to say Kiddush, the traditional prayer that blesses the holiday. Kadesh means "sanctify". Before we start the Pesach process, we declare that will be a holy or spiritual experience.

Marriage also begins with sanctity. The ritual where the groom places a ring on his bride's finger is called "kiddushin", meaning that he consecrates her as his bride.

Step one of a successful marriage is to start off on a holy-footing. A new couple should appreciate that a life built on a sense of higher purpose and solid values has the greatest chance for success.

Cup 2: Communicate
Pesach is all about telling the Exodus story. It's no good to sit quietly and read the history on your own, Pesach is an interactive experience of question and answer, a parent sharing the past with his child. According to the famed kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, Pesach is comprised of two words: Peh sach, the mouth tells. Seder night is all about conversation and communication.

Marriage thrives on intra-couple communication. When you tell our spouse what's on your heart and mind or even when you simply share what happened during your day, you enhance you relationship. Talk to each other and your marriage will blossom.

Cup 3: Appreciate
After reading the Exodus story and enjoying a sumptuous meal, we thank G-d for the food He provides and the miracles He performs.

As a couple settles into the steady rhythm of marriage, they run the risk of taking each other for granted. She cooks each night and he brings home a salary; she gets the kids ready and he maintains the garden. When you notice your spouse's input and show appreciation, you add tremendous value to your relationship. Thank you's go a long way in enhancing marriage, especially when you offer them for those "ordinary" things that "all couples do". Remember also to thank G-d each day that you have someone significant at your side.

Cup 4: Anticipate
We end our Seder and drain the final cup with a wish for a better tomorrow. "Next year in Jerusalem" is the fervent hope of every Jew as our Seder draws to a close.

No matter how wonderful your marriage is, as they say in Yiddish "if good is good, surely better must be better".

Friday, March 19, 2010

Pesach's coming...

Pesach and panic seem cosmically interwoven. I bet the yiddelach of the shtetl were a whole lot calmer about their Pesach prep than their post-modern grandchildren are today. Back then, they cleaned their two or three rooms, kashered their handful of utensils and got to work cleaning chickens, boiling schmaltz and baking Matzah. Today, we moan about the price of macaroons and the shortage of potato chips as we phone-order exaggerated meat and fish deliveries so we can lay out a spread that nobody will finish.

Shtetl dwellers would sometimes buy new shoes, a jacket or a skirt for Yom Tov. Your elter-bobba never dreamed of a new wardrobe for her wedding, let alone for Pesach. You can be sure they didn’t fuss over the Seder decor either (a bunch of spring flowers would have been a treat).

What they did have in their claustrophobic, fire-trap little homes was Yom Tov spirit. Our ancestors had little, yet they shared a lot. Somehow, they always managed to dish up an extra ladle of soup for an unexpected guest. Their guests didn’t sit at place-marked seats and often were neither family nor friends. In all likelihood, your great-zeida would bring home some vagabonds each Seder night.

Pesach is around the corner and our frenzied preparations are hitting fever-pitch. We want to impress our Seder guests, inspire ourselves and leave our children with warm Pesach memories. And there’s nothing wrong with that- Pesach should be uplifting, enjoyable and memorable. To play Pesach right is to feel empowered and liberated at the end of it.

But, if Pesach breeds stress, leaves you on edge or turns into an “outdo the Cohens” exercise, then you have become a slave to Pesach.

Rosh Chodesh was on this past Tuesday. Tuesday is the one time during Creation when G-d said “it is good” twice. The Talmud explains that it was “good for the heavens and good for the people”. Practically, this means that Tuesday represents the balance between personal spiritual bliss and helping others feel good. When Nissan- the month of Pesach- starts on a Tuesday, it reminds us that a real Pesach is as much about helping others feel good as it is about making ourselves feel good.

You may know someone who doesn’t feel good- perhaps they’re battling financially and can’t make a Seder like they used to; maybe they’re alienated from their family and will spend Pesach alone; possibly they’re disinterested in celebrating Pesach in the first place. If you know such a person, involve them. Helping someone else experience and enjoy Pesach- even if it’s challenging to do- makes your Pesach worthwhile.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Always trust your Instruments

We drove up to Bela Bela (formerly Warmbaths) on Tuesday evening to join the South African Shluchim Conference. We dodged the M1 parking lot and snaked along the Old Pretoria Rd. and back on to the N1 Polokwane. Most of the journey was straight forward and our directions indicated we should take the "Settlers" turnoff. Once off the highway, we traveled down a potholed country road, swallowed by the inky night.

We must have driven for twenty minutes without finding the T-junction that our map showed as being five minutes away. Seeing as the "straight-forward" directions were not so straight forward, we pulled out the GPS to guide us. "Turn right" it announced, we veered into a tiny rural suburb (the single-pump petrol station had closed by eight, which wasn't very reassuring). Through the suburb, "turn right", onto a country road "turn right". Our GPS had taken us on the lengthiest U-turn imaginable.

Our map had suggested we were only 30km from our destination, the GPS warned it would take an hour to get there. We began to wonder if the GPS knew what it was doing. A quick vote in the car revealed that we would trust the GPS.

Our headlights lit a narrow section of the endless road as we wondered if the GPS might take us to Botswana. But, we soon drove through the town of Bela Bela and found the gravel road that lead to the lodge we were staying at. We arrived at the precise time the GPS had indicated.

Driving home, we decided to let the GPS guide us out to the highway. Soon enough, we were back in that little town and following the logical path back to the highway. Again, the GPS concocted a convoluted route, which we followed, knowing it would include a "three right turns" stunt. I guess our GPS has spiritual leanings; it took us right past the old kosher butchery, a remnant of Warmbaths' thriving Jewish community. The "slaghuis" has a pig painted on the facade, but stil retains the "Kosher" signs from the old days.

As we neared Pretoria, the traffic thickened again and we were tipped off that there would be major delays. GPS came to the rescue again, suggesting an alternative route that slipped us past the gridlock, through back suburbs and back onto the free-flowing highway.

We often think we know the best routes to take in life- how to make money, what will bring us happiness, how to raise wholesome children. You can easily get lost on the road of life and land up at a destination that looks nothing like where you wanted to be. Pull out your GPS- your G-d positioning system. Hashem knows the routes, the shortcuts and the places of interest that get you home safely. You only need to follow His prompts.

Friday, March 05, 2010


It’s time to debunk some myths. These perceptions are common to most people- you may well have mulled them over yourself- but it’s time to say it like it is: “They’re false!”


We’re all waiting for that special miracle in our lives. G-d is a nice idea. We understand- in theory- that we should do all those things that He wants us to do. But, if He would just drop in and say “hi”, you know, show us a sign that He’s around and that He cares, then we’d commit to doing whatever He wants. “If I make that deal, I’ll give more charity”; “When my mother recovers, I’ll start keeping Shabbos”. 

History proves that this idyllic theory doesn’t work.

Hashem took the Jews out of Egypt. For 210 years, they had dreamed of living Egypt and I’m sure they uttered their fair share of pledges of what they’d do when the grand day would arrive. They got more than they bargained for- Exodus, splitting the Sea, living off heaven-sent fast food and enjoying climate control in the harsh desert. To top it off, Hashem Himself spoke to them, telling them exactly what he wanted.

It didn’t help. Just weeks after history’s greatest Divine revelation, as they stood there at Sinai, the Jews turned their back on G-d and made a Golden Calf. 

Commitment comes from commitment, not from inspiration.


We’d all like to be inspired and consistently grow in our Yiddishkeit. You imagine the goals you need to attain in your Judaism and what it will take to achieve them. You set off confidentaly to make the minyan, learn Torah regularly, keep kosher or avoid speaking badly of others. You get off to a flying start,

But, then you oversleep one morning, watch the soccer instead of the shiur, grab a Steers burger on impulse or blurt out some hot gossip. Before you know it, you’ve lost sight of our goals, promises to self and spiritual direction.

That’s understandable. Your biggest mistake would be to say “Oh well”, throw up your hands in despair and go with the flow. 

The Jews messed up terribly when they made the Golden Calf. Rather than despair, they turned 180 degrees, fixed their act, got new Tablets and even brought about a new Yom Tov- Yom Kippur. Bouncing back from failure is more powerful than straight success.