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Baumel Joseph: Breaking a glass half empty

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Sitting in synagogue with too much time on our hands, a friend and I had a good discussion about life expectations. We were being critical (what else is new) of some local institutions. But we both concluded that one could not legitimately expect perfection. Although we have both encountered some complications in life, we could effortlessly list the many positive elements that are all around us. After all, what’s perfect?

We often expect perfection from ourselves and from the people and places we hold dear. But of course, that is preposterous. We know it is impossible to be perfect, even though we talk and judge otherwise.

People are flawed and so are the institutions we build. We want them to be better, to accommodate the able and disabled, to be just, gentle and merciful. When they fall short of these noble yet impossible standards, what should our reaction be?

Some look at the state of affairs and pessimistically see the glass as half empty – things are bad and they are getting worse. My father was like that. Others, like my optimistic mom, see the glass as half full. For her, there was so much to be proud of, so much good, and she was convinced that if one worked hard, things would improve. Her world was almost perfect.

It’s strange that such opposite people could stay married their whole lives. Yes, they fought, but they held on, complementing each other in strange ways.

Yet their personal approach blended perfectly in matters of charity. For that concept, they were both “glass-half-full” people. Usually, they were not suspicious of anyone who was in need of help. Their optimism meant that they had the ability to help, no matter what. They were not wealthy. In fact, for many years, we were legitimately poor. But somehow their glass of giving was always half full, always able to provide for others.

At weddings, I often wonder if the couple will find a way to balance their outlooks on life. At the end of a traditional wedding ceremony, a glass is broken. Is it symbolic of life half full or half empty?

I understand the conventional explanation for the broken glass: we are to remember the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Even at the moment of our greatest joy, we cannot forget our national tragedy. Our glass of joy cannot be perfect or complete.

READ: BAUMEL JOSEPH: YOM KIPPUR – THE MOST WONDERFUL HOLIDAY

My own teacher, Rabbi Getsel Ellinson, offered a different explanation that he found in rabbinic sources. The glass was to be broken on the assumption, or hope, that the couple would never again need a cup of wine for their wedding benedictions. This cup was the only one they would ever need, as their marriage would last. How hopeful that sentiment is.

In looking for explanations of rituals and customs, we never have to choose one over another. Adding interpretive modes adds depth to our understanding and enjoyment. No one has a monopoly on judgment.

Thus, the above two views are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they match each other and support my glass metaphor. Each one supposes a glass half full-half empty pattern. If, at your wonderful, joyous wedding, you think that you have achieved perfection, be careful to remember that you are part of a world and a people that has experienced immense tragedy. It is part of your heritage, and should be part of your consciousness.

On the other hand, if some fear of an eventual disruption of your wedded life intrudes, let us break this glass to promote confidence in marital persistence. Both optimism and pessimism have their place in our tradition and personal outlook.

What is unacceptable is the anticipation of perfection. Break the glass and learn that you cannot expect perfection from each other, or from life. Break the glass and experience both the sadness of tragedies and the completeness of this moment. Your marriage is irreplaceable. Life is not perfect, but it can have moments of greatness. It all depends on our outlook. 

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