When my wife and I were invited to an intimate wedding on the beach this week, we thought - that should be lovely. A make shift chuppah set up at sunset with just the endless blue stretching from the sands of Nitzanim as a backdrop; a barbecue and bonfire with a bride, groom, a few guests and plenty of toasted marshmallows – what a great way to spend a few hours.
That was until I found out that the event was going to be a full day, nine-hour affair. We were to gather at noon in Jerusalem for a chatan''s tisch (literally: the groom''s table, where there are snacks and the man-of-the-hour gives a pre-wedding speech), followed by an hour and a half chartered bus ride to the remote beach they''d chosen (within missile range of the Gaza Strip, not that I’d noticed that turn off the highway to rocket-weary Sederot…) and bookmarked by lots of hanging out and schmoozing with strangers (we didn’t know many of the other guests) before, during and after the main event until well into the evening.
Nine hours…wow, I thought. How could I afford to take the whole day off? I have been particularly busy lately with projects (including this new blog). And yet, if I skipped the wedding, what unique, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime experiences would I be missing out on? What fascinating people would I not have a chance to meet?
The decision was made even more urgent by the very nature of the affair: Mira and Akiva live in New York and were flying to Israel just to get married here, then leaving nearly immediately afterward. They only invited a double minyan''s worth of people – a total of about 10 men and 10 women - to make sure they could say sheva brachot during the seudat mitzvah (the obligatory festive meal). If I didn''t come, they''d actually have to replace me.
"You''re irreplaceable," Mira cooed (at least that''s how it sounded by email) as she tried to convince me to set aside the time.
In the end, I did attend. Meditation saved the day.
My wife and I are both meditators. We study with Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, who runs the Or HaLev Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation at Kibbutz Hanaton in the northern Jezreel Valley and teaches a weekly Jewish Meditation class at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. I’ve written previously about his unique approach, which combines Buddhist mindfulness practice with Jewish teachings, particularly from the early 20th century Piaseczner Rebbe, who was active in Warsaw and went beyond his fellow Hasidic masters to provide his followers with concrete techniques in contemplative Judaism, including quieting the mind, visualization, song and prayer.
My wife met Mira at one of Jacobson-Maisels’ week long silent retreats at Hanaton a few years ago. Mira met Akiva at another such retreat in San Francisco. We all got to know each other at our house in Jerusalem at a recent Rosh Hashana.
Meditation was not just the glue bringing many of the guests to the beach that day; it was an active component throughout. Prior to the chuppah, we all sat down in our beach chairs, facing the ocean and the canopy, and the bride, barefoot but in full wedding attire, her face already veiled from the bedeken, led the guests in a guided Jewish meditation to clear the mind and focus our attention on the nuptials to come. The aim, she explained, would be to “experience how getting quiet enhances not only our kavanah [intention], but more deeply, our presence; that is to say, prayer.”
I closed my eyes and let the sounds of the sea serve as my anchor as I noticed the feeling of the breeze on the left side of my face, lifting my hair ever so slightly off my forehead. Mira was still speaking but I was somewhere else entirely.
Jacobson-Maisels explains that there are three main states in which we most often find ourselves: we are either grasping towards something pleasurable, resisting something that''s not so pleasurable, or – and this occurs probably 90 percent of the time - not really noticing our surroundings at all. I vowed to turn the downtime of the wedding – and as a nine-hour adventure, there was plenty of that – into an opportunity to be mindful of the 90 percent.
And there was so much to be mindful of: the ruffles of the bride''s gown; the brilliant sparkles in the sand; the ramshackle events hall cum pub on the hill with its cracked corners and corrugated tin roof; the man walking his dog back and forth through the low tide; the slow decline of the sun and the sudden appearance of a remarkable full moon; the distortion of a face as the flames from the bonfire heat-warped the air.
When the weather became cooler than I found comfortable, I welcomed in the chill and tried to soften to it; to experience the unpleasantness fully rather than resist and push it away. Mira and Akiva’s wedding became an unexpected meditation retreat. That was the surprise guest I would have missed out on meeting had I stayed home.
Under the chuppah, before Akiva stomped his foot to shatter the glass that is the traditional end to the ceremony, Daniel Stambler, a guest and meditation teacher himself, repeated the oft-quoted line from Thai Buddhist teacher Achaan Chah that “the glass is already broken.” The meaning, in mindfulness terms, transposes the usual explanation that we smash the glass to recall the destruction of the Jewish Temple and Jerusalem 2,000 years ago into a metaphor that the true secret to a loving, lasting marriage – really, to a joyful life as a whole – is the ability to see that good and bad, pleasant, unpleasant and the other 90 percent, are all part of the nature of human existence.
The goal that day on the beach was for the bride and groom, and all the assembled guests, to be filled with delight at the moment of marriage while knowing deep down, at the very same moment, that sadness can and will come to visit, and that this too will pass.
From this perspective, nine hours with Mira and Akiva was hardly enough.
You can learn more about Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels at the Or HaLev website. Weekend and week long retreats are scheduled throughout the year, conducted in both Hebrew and English.