Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “I am an optimist against my better judgment.” In general, I tend to sit in the space of optimism. Perhaps because of my constitution or upbringing; perhaps because of my faith and religious commitment. Part of it is most certainly the gift of being a rabbi for so many years and witnessing so many community members move through the ups and downs of life with grace, love, integrity, and hope. But I have to admit that, since October 7, my predilection of positivity has been challenged. We are mourning so much. There isn’t a clear path forward. It has been an enormous effort to just put one foot in front of the other, never mind remaining hopeful.
And then, every once in a while, I feel like I get transported to another planet, to a reminder that the world isn’t only heavy and painful, filled with loss and trauma. This past Sunday afternoon was one such moment, as I had the blessing of officiating at the wedding of Amelia Geser and Nathan Calvin. Amelia’s parents, Ilene Rosenthal (BJ’s president) and Lou Geser, met and married at BJ. I have known Amelia her whole life. She and her family traveled to Israel on the BJ 180th trip. She and I spent a week together in Nicaragua on a BJ teen trip. She babysat my children when they were little. And there I was, standing under the huppah (wedding canopy) in the Sanctuary with her and her beloved Nathan, whom she met as a freshman at Grinnell College.
It was more than the love that emanated from this beautiful couple, even though it was that. It was more than the toasts at their joint tisch (festive gathering before the ketubah signing), facilitated by Amelia’s sister Cara, that honored the uniqueness of the bride and groom both separately and together and the gratitude of their friends and family for the energy they put out in the universe. It was more than the love of the posse of BJ members that Ilene and Lou were a part of 30 years ago, many of whom also met and married and raised their children at BJ. It was more than the raucous dancing and celebration that everyone needed so desperately. It was more than all these young adults who grew up at BJ, now making their way in the world, yet still feeling so much at home at BJ and bound together by this community. It was all the above and more.
Those handful of hours filled with such emotion, love, and gratitude didn’t change anything about the challenges we are facing. They did, however, change me. They were a powerful reminder of the soaring feeling of being a human being touched by love and joy; feelings that were just as real, if not more so, than the despair and hopelessness that abounds.
Not every day does one attend or officiate a wedding (though within the course of two months I have had the blessing of officiating at three weddings of women who grew up at BJ and found their beloveds!). But I had a similarly powerful experience at a memorial service last weekend for Rabbi Laurie Phillips, who filled the universe with unmatched kindness. And though we were all gathered together to mourn her death, there was such gratitude and elation for the gift of her life. And on a less dramatic level, I recently was enveloped in a book, Fellowship Point, by Alice Elliot Dark, which invited me into another world—that of friendship and love—and touched my heart in a way that made me feel more tender and open. Love was the engine for all of these experiences—not only love in marriage, but love in friendship and community, and love in the power of memory or even love that manifests itself in a story. Love has the power to revive the soul and inspire us to hope and believe in a world that can be transformed.
Just a handful of years ago, a handwritten note written by Dr. Martin Luther King was discovered. The note was evidently a response to someone asking him what he believed was the meaning of love. He answered: “Love is the greatest force in the universe. It is the heartbeat of the moral cosmos. He who loves is a participant in the being of God.”
Love is indeed a great force in the universe. It can be touched and discovered and given in countless ways. It is what reminds us who we really are, and that our hearts are beating for a world of beauty, justice, and dignity built on love. It teaches us that we are each a spark of God.
Let us never forget that.