Every time I attend a Jewish marriage, I bother whomever I am closest to with the following observation: Why is Jewish marriage such a big deal? The proverbial Martian partaking in the festivities would be baffled why parents spend so much money, why normally put-together people behave in such crazy ways, and why even the busiest of people rearrange their schedules to share in the joy of a bride and groom. At the end of the day, the most the groom has done is handed his bride a small ring of nominal cost (the giving of the expensive one with the diamond a few weeks prior got no similar fanfare) and he contractually agreed to let her move in to his house. May G-d save us from this reality, but all over the world, every day, thousands of people do the same thing and receive no huge party. What’s the big deal with what this young couple has done?
The truth is that Jews are not alone in formalizing the coupling of a man and a woman. While there is much variation in the details, every society has some recognized way of designating a woman to a man, and they are also very celebrated occasions.
My quandary, though, is not with the institution of marriage, but with the particulars of Jewish wedding ceremony. Usually, the couple already decided to get married some time prior to the wedding, have exchanged gifts, and have even arranged their new home together. For some reason, these few acts under the chuppah change everything, to the point that there’s no greater event in a Jew’s social calendar than a wedding, judging by the fact that one is commanded to put aside his Torah learning to escort a bride to her groom. The obvious question is: why?
One of the most important pillars of Jewish thought is called d’veikus (lit. cleaving) to G-d. One cannot obviously do this physically, but accomplishes this though emulating His attributes, one of which is by giving. The Infinite needs nothing, since He is and has everything, so His relationship to His creations must be one of benevolence. Thus in order to achieve d’veikus, one must give.
While there are many opportunities for a person to give, they are essentially subject to the whim of the giver. One can help his neighbor unload his groceries today and tomorrow retreat to his home and ignore his neighbor’s needs. To effect actual emulation of G-d, one cannot be a volunteer, but must do so in an ongoing basis. At the same time, it’s impossible for one to altruistically nullify himself; there will be a situation when his needs will override giving to others. How, then, can one achieve this attribute of giving?
Only in marriage can one become this unlimited giver. By giving to one’s spouse, one creates an arena where giving to another is the best one can do for oneself! Since the two individuals sublimate their individual wills to the new needs of the couple, they are essentially creating a way to give to another without having to ever escape to one’s own needs.
Still, as noted above, this is true about any relationship. Even business partners do this by agreeing to work together, sometimes evening signing contracts to formalize the terms of their corporation. Why must marriage be the only place for this lofty giving?
The difference is that the chuppah, and the wedding ceremony in general, is particularly one-sided. Rings are not exchanged; only the husband gives his wife a ring. The chuppah, while some of the clauses do require reciprocation by the wife, the primary Torah obligations are solely the husband’s. The chuppah itself, according to Jewish law, must be the husband’s (traditionally the chuppah was his house that the new couple would live in). All these actions taken at the wedding are therefore evidence of the husband actually and contractually beginning to give, without receiving anything in return from his bride, though all for the sake of becoming a couple through them. The great joy that everyone witnesses is the beginning of a Jew entering into the epitome of d’veikus through giving—and that is certainly an event deserving all the attention it receives!
In addition to writing, I spend about a third of my hours awake learning Torah. In the other thirds, I edit for a book publishing company, imbue valuable life lessons to my adolescent children while attempting to mitigate their bickering, prepare our house for the arrival of the Shabbos Queen (this is a week-long endeavor), and try out new chulent recipes. Oh, I also drum on anything that makes a sound when banged.