By Rabbi Lisa Delson
Jewish weddings often begin with the phrase from Psalm 118 “zeh ha’yom asah Adonai, nagila v’nismecha vo” “This is the day that God created, let us celebrate and rejoice in it.” Throughout wedding ceremonies, the officiant reminds the kahal or congregation about the joy and gladness that comes from two people uniting their lives together in love and blessing, hope for the future and an honoring of the past. Family members and friends gather to wish the couple well on their journey together as married people. The couple is showered with words of blessings during the sheva brachot, the ketubah is read and then finally at the end, one or both of the newly married people, step on a glass, everyone shouts Mazel Tov and the party begins. Breaking the glass, a custom of unknown origin is the most recognizable aspect of a Jewish wedding. Interpretations abound for this simple act of destruction. One is a prayer for the couple that as long as it takes them to piece the shards back together, that is how long they will be married. Another is a remembrance of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. And a third, among many more, is a recognition that even with the happiness of this moment there is work to be done as a couple in making the world a better place and working toward tikkun olam, perfecting the world.
While November 9, 1938 in Germany and Austria was also a day created by God, it was not one of celebration and happiness. It was a day that recognized for its infamy rather than its joyousness. This day or more aptly, night, known as Kristallnacht, night of broken glass, represents the unofficial beginning of the Holocaust. As tensions grew and laws tightened for Jews living in Germany, this night came as a surprise to those living there as well as the rest of the world. Lives were shattered along with the glass that littered the streets. Fires blazed and 96 Jews were killed. Nazi burned more than 1,000 synagogues, almost 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed, cemeteries and schools were vandalized, and 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.[i] Throughout all of the destruction, the sound of broken glass filled the night and defined an era.
There is something so powerful about the idea of broken glass. It represents the sharpness and the harshness of life. It reminds us of the fragility of a material so clear and strong. A wine glass serves as a vessel that holds sweetness and one that dashes dreams. A window allows us to look from the inside out and see from the outside in. Glass provides us with opposing metaphors in Jewish life and history, one of immense joy and one of immense sadness, creation and destruction, life and death.
In the height of joy at a wedding or the depths of sadness of remembrance, we seek wholeness and peace. Kristallnacht, a night that we imagine happened so long ago, yet exists in the lifetime of others, we see and understand the need to continue to make the world a better place. We see the need for tikkun, repair, of ourselves, of our communities, and of our world.
Rabbi Lisa Delson serves as Assistant Rabbi and Program Director at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, Michigan.