Learning to Shout Mazal Tov

05.31.2016

I want to start with a question.  Let me warn you. It’s a bit of a trick question. I kind of want you to get the wrong answer. What is the very last thing that happens at a Jewish wedding ceremony? For those who answered “breaking the glass”—you are wrong!  Don’t feel bad. That’s the answer I would have given. But, actually, the last thing we do at a Jewish wedding is shout ‘mazal tov.’ And, today, I’d like to talk about the relationship between the next to the last thing we do, which is breaking the glass, and the very last thing we do, which is shout ‘mazal tov.’

But, first, a story. I had an interesting experience a week ago. I attended the Federation event at Town Hall where Mayim Biyalik spoke. I parked in the lot outside of Town Hall, as I always do. I left the event, I got into my car, and I began to drive. Suddenly, I heard a strange crunching sound coming from the back of my car. I couldn’t figure out what it was, so I just kept driving.

Then, I heard the crunching sound again. And, I felt a little breeze coming from my back left window. I turned around, and lo and behold, my window was completely shattered. Well, what could I do? I kept driving, and I drove home. In my mind, the window had shattered spontaneously. This actually happened to me once before in my home in Worcester. And, when I got home, I spent about a half an hour carefully removing the broken glass from my window and from all the stuff I had that was piled into my back seat.

Lucky for me, in my life my experience with shattered glass is limited. In fact, my primary experience with shattered glass is at a Jewish wedding. And, what do we do when the glass shatters at a wedding? We shout mazal tov!  Should I also shout mazal tov over the shattered glass of my car window?

What would Jewish law say?  Well, I guess it depends on why we shout mazal tov after we break a glass at a wedding. So, I’d like to delve into that with you this morning, in the hope that it will give me some insight into my car, and hopefully, some other things, too.

The traditional explanation for breaking glass is that it reminds us of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. And, we break the glass so that our current joy at the wedding does not act as a narcotic and cause us to completely forget that our world is not yet complete because the Temple hasn’t been rebuilt yet.

Since the average Jew today is not pining away for the unbuilt Temple, many rabbis give this a contemporary twist and say: “We live in a broken world. There is poverty and violence. Many people live in despair. Let’s not forget those people. Let’s not live in a happiness bubble. Let’s not let our own wonderful life obscure the fact that there are people out there who need our help.”

As if a Jew could ever forget these things. Y.L. Perets once said “A Jew is someone who can’t sleep and won’t let the rest of the world sleep either.” If anything, we Jews are sometimes guilty of having a hyperactive conscience. And, in my cynical moments, I ask: “Do we really need to break the glass at a wedding to remind ourselves of the troubles of the world?”  What would be so terrible if we lived in a bubble for half an hour? Would we be guilty of some gross insensitivity if we experienced uninterrupted happiness for 30 minutes?

And, that’s why I think that the reason for the breaking of the glass is just the opposite of what we’ve been taught. It’s not there to help us remember the pain of the world. It’s there to give us permission to forget that pain for a little while. Believe it or not, we sometimes need permission to feel unmitigated joy.

Remember the show “All in the Family?” I remember an episode where Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers decide they are not going to have a child. They cannot bring a child into a troubled world, a world shadowed by the specter of a possible nuclear holocaust. This might seem extreme to us, but actually the underlying feeling is quite common.

Native American writer Sherman Alexi thinks that his father’s drunkenness and generally self-destructive behavior was a kind of protest against being robbed of his culture and his land by the white man. From his father’s perspective, if he were to live a normal, happy life, it would be an act of disloyalty to his people. It would be like saying everything is fine, when it’s not fine.

On a personal level, after we lose a loved one, we still have the capacity to experience happiness. When we do, we sometimes feel guilty about it. How can we be so happy? How can we laugh? How can we be normal? That implies that everything is OK. But, it’s not OK. Isn’t my happiness an act of disloyalty?

As far back as the very first exile of the Jewish people by the Babylonians, there were Jews who wanted to walk around in a permanent state of mourning. And, Jeremiah said to them, “Don’t do that. Build houses in Babylonia. Get married. Have children. Be happy in your everyday lives. Don’t worry, we the Jewish people will develop rituals to remind us of our distant dreams, so that we don’t have to think that our ‘new normal’ is a betrayal.”

And, that’s why when we get married, we stand under the chuppah. A chuppah is like a sukkah. It’s fragile. It provides no real protection from the elements. It represents a world that is imperfect and incomplete, a work in progress. And, just in case we didn’t get the point, the wedding closes with the breaking of the glass, reminding us of the brokenness of our world.

These rituals are there to give us permission to be happy in an imperfect world. They proclaim: “You see? You haven’t forgotten about the world’s troubles. Now go be happy.”They reassure us that our happiness is not an act of insensitivity. It will not make us callous. On the contrary, it will give us the strength to bring happiness to others.

Because sadness cannot conquer sadness. We cannot make the world better by being sad. Only happy people can make the world better. And, that’s why the last thing we do at a wedding is shout mazal tov. Mazal tov has the last word. This is the Jewish philosophy of life: “Yes, we live in a broken world. But, there is more goodness in the world than sadness. The breaking of the glass is an interruption. Mazal tov is the bottom line. Mazal tov has the upper hand.”

And, if this true of the really big problems of the world, how much more is it true of the little problems. Because, most of the time the things that bring us down, that make us angry, that disappoint us and frustrate us—most of the time, these are relatively minor things.  We lose power for several hours. The internet server goes down for a while. We spend too much time sitting in traffic on 405. Or, someone breaks our car window, and it takes a week to get an appointment to fix it.

That’s what happened to me. The morning after I discovered my broken car window, I got a call from the security department of the Financial Center in downtown Seattle. Someone had turned in my laptop case, and nothing had been taken out of it!  It was only then that I realized what had happened. Someone hoping for a laptop had broken my window and found a rabbi’s files– which won’t get you much on the open market. What a disappointment!

Here’s where our Tradition comes to my aid. What do we do when the glass breaks? We shout mazal tov! We remember that it’s only a glass. We remember that we’re at a wedding and this is a very minor interruption in a joyous occasion. For me, it meant being grateful to live in a city where a security guard will call you the next morning to return your briefcase— and where even the thieves are gentle with your belongings and won’t steal any more than they have to.

So, Ross and Rachel, because you are people of great sensitivity, we would never worry that your happiness will cause you to forget the problems of the world. On the contrary, your happiness is a reminder that the power of joy is greater than any other force in life.

And, if that joy should ever be interrupted, as it is at times for all of us—if in the wedding of your life, a glass should break—remember to shout mazal tov…and draw on the deeper happiness of your love to sustain you and all those around you in our fragile and beautiful world.