Ready for Judgment?


This week ushers in Elul, the month when Jews traditionally prepare for the High Holidays. In anticipation of the Day of Judgment, we judge ourselves, conducting a full cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul). The Torah portion Re’eh can serve as a checklist for forgiveness, repentance and renewing our lives. Its various laws and themes each suggest avenues for real and lasting change:

Blessing and Curse

The power to choose is staggering — and inescapable. Will we align ourselves with mitzvot and blessings or rebellion and curses? It might seem that our choices are not so stark, or that we can remain safely in “neutral territory.” But Deuteronomy asserts that, on some level, the options we face will incline us either toward life and blessings or toward death and curses. How will you choose life this year?

You Are on a Journey

The Israelites stand at the Jordan, a minor crossing that will take them into the Promised Land. So it is with the small changes of teshuvah (repentance). Turning to God is ein klein drei (one small turn), and yet it covers an immeasurable distance: “As far as East is from West” (Psalms 103:12). What is the Jordan that you need to cross?

Destroy Idolatry

Trying to repent while holding onto sin is, in Maimonides’ image, like immersing in the mikvah (ritual bath) while holding onto a snake. Sin, harm, idolatry and temptation must be relinquished. Is there anyone or anything in your life that is corrupting and corrosive to you spiritually?

Create a Spiritual Home

In Deuteronomy, Jerusalem is established as the central spiritual home. Each of us needs to create centralized places for spiritual focus. Which synagogue will be the locus of your spiritual work this year? Where in your home will you pray, eat mindfully and create rituals, as the Israelites did in Jerusalem?

Choose a Leader Worth Following

It is a mistake, we know, to follow those who desecrate God’s name or ask us to violate divine principles, no matter how charismatic or successful they appear. We need to guard against the tendency to add to, or take away from, the Torah. Checking an idea or opinion against the Word of God is a good test to prove its spiritual worth. Who are your spiritual mentors? How will you filter and assess advice this year?

Your Body Is Holy

Repentance isn’t an abnegation of the body in favor of the soul. Repentance requires the elevation of both body and soul. The laws in Re’eh, like those for Yom Kippur, include restrictions on food and skin care. Many sins are committed through the body, but the solution is to love the body more, not less. How will your honor your body this year?

Tithe to the Temple and the Poor

Bonding to God without supporting community is an incomplete Jewish spiritual expression. What have you done this year, and can you do next year, to create a regular structure and percentage by which you will support a local synagogue and the needy?

Forgive Debts

Re’eh talks about forgiving monetary debts. Elul is the time of year when we tear up the IOU on emotional debts. What grudge, expectation or righteous indignation can you let go of to enter the New Year lighter?

Love Freedom More Than Security

The servant who would rather remain with his master than go out into the world is an extreme example, but all of us have, at one time or another, chosen security over freedom. A familiar sin can seem appealing compared to the unknown, open territory of a changed life. Repentance is a daring act because it requires that we abandon comfortable behaviors and predictable consequences. Is there a destructive pattern in your life that “feels like home,” which you are now willing to give up?

Give First — and Best — to God

Many people give tzedakah (charity) based on how much money is left over at the end of the year. Or we give so much of ourselves at the office that we have little energy to offer family or volunteer organizations. What if, as Re’eh instructs, we paid godly causes first? What if we gave the best that we have — materially and spiritually — to what is most holy, rather than what is most pressing or lucrative?

Honor Tradition Throughout the Year

Re’eh reviews the three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. How might the themes and observances of those holidays support your cheshbon hanefesh? How does each holiday represent a pilgrimage back to yourself, as well as back to Jerusalem? What holiday observances will you engage in again, or newly, this year?

May you find inspiration in Torah, as step by step, inquiry by inquiry, you prepare to enter the High Holidays.

Flowers Make the Wedding Bloom


Flowers are often a big part of anyone’s wedding day, from the bouquets the bride and her attendants carry to the chuppah decorations and the table centerpieces at the reception hall. Many times the flowers are what the guests remember about the wedding (unless a minor disaster strikes). Deciding which flowers to use for what arrangements, though, can be a dizzying experience, thanks to the availability of different types and colors of flowers at all times of the year.

Choosing Flowers

“Using flowers that are in season will help keep the costs down,” says Chris Kuhlman of Tioga Gardens in Owego, N.Y. “Many flowers are in season all the time, as flowers come from all over world.” Some, he said, are very expensive regardless of the time of year, such as lily of the valley and calla lilies, because flowers like that are not used as much, so the supply and demand cost is higher.

Florist Pat Van Tuyl said, “What seems to be popular these days are the Asiatic lilies, the Oriental lilies, the Stargazer lilies, which are pink, and the Alstroeneria lilies, which come in yellows, lavenders, whites, pinks and reds,” he said. “Roses are still real popular too.”

Good choices for spring weddings, Kuhlman said, include tulips, irises, daffodils and other bulb flowers. In the summer and early fall, though, those aren’t such good choices, even thought they may still be available, because the quality won’t be as good, and those flowers can’t handle the heat as well.

For mothers’, grandmothers’ and aunts’ corsages, sweetheart roses, cymbidium orchids and gardenias are still popular, although Van Tuyl notes that the last are often delicate, turning brown if brushed against.

Decorations

Using similar-looking flowers throughout the wedding ties everything together, Scott MacLennan, of MacLennan’s Flowers, noted. “We coordinate the flowers with the bridesmaids’ dresses and the bride’s bouquet, and carry that through to the reception,” he said.

Kuhlman thinks there should be some coordination between the flowers used in the ceremony and the reception. For example, the bridal bouquet and synagogue flowers may use softer or fewer colors, while at the reception the colors go brighter, he says. “Going from an afternoon ceremony to an evening reception might also include a different look for the flowers.”

Some brides do ask for pew decorations, MacLennan notes, “depending on how elaborate the wedding is and the finances, who’s paying for it.” Flower arrangements for the wedding can cost $100 to $3,000, again “depending on whether 50 people are coming and the reception’s at the Legion Hall, or if 300 guests will be attending the reception at the country club,” he said.

Another thing Van Tuyl sees is a move away from table centerpieces at the receptions. “They were hard to hold conversations around,” he said. Instead, there is now a new container which has a large base and a center-holder that puts the flowers up 32-36 inches, enabling conversation to flow more freely at the tables.

Floral Wedding Themes

A lot of times, Kuhlman said, “We do a theme all in one color. White can be a very striking color visually, and we do the bouquets and decorations with some greenery” for a splash of color. For instance, “a New Year’s theme could be done all in silver with accents,” he says.

Basically, the theme depends on what mood the bride wants to create — classic and subtle or a little wild, Kuhlman says. “If they want a taste of glitz we can do that, and it can be fun. Often, though, we do something elegant, not so bright or glitzy. All weddings have some look, for instance, Victorian or more modern, or even tropical, which can be dramatic and bold.

“Sometimes,” Kuhlman continued, “we’ve done harvest themes in the fall. That look can be very gorgeous, with fruits put in with the flowers in the centerpieces.”

Bridesmaids’ Bouquets and More

If a bride wants her bridesmaids’ dresses to match their bouquets, Kuhlman stated that he needs to see the color of the dress. “Often there needs to be some contrast,” he said. “If it’s subtle, we can do shades of flowers similar to the dress. But if you have a little contrast the flowers show up better in the pictures.”

The attendants’ bouquets really should complement, rather than match, their dresses, Van Tuyl states. “Brides come in and try to match the flowers to the dresses, but then they won’t show up well in photos,” he said. “For instance, if the dress is blue, then maybe a few blue flowers could be used mixed in with pinks and whites, which will look much better.”

The Bride’s Bouquet

Many brides these days are having two bridal bouquets made, one to walk with and keep for themselves and the other to throw.

“We’ve been doing toss bouquets for a long time,” Kuhlman said. “Usually the toss bouquet is a miniature version of the main one. The bouquets do keep for a while, and now flowers can be preserved through freeze-drying. People can go to Precious Petals for that. Some flowers freeze-dry better than others, though,” he warned.

Van Tuyl said he will often include a free, smaller throw bouquet for the wedding, as many brides today want to keep their bouquets and have them freeze-dried.

The Consultation

MacLennan said the first consultation could take up to an hour and should be three to six months ahead of the wedding date, “after the dresses are chosen and a color picked.” There might be a few other times where the flower order is fine-tuned, based on the number of attendants, the number of tables at the reception and how many people have RSVPed. “Sometimes the bride will call with a question or we’ll call her with a question, and then the answer needs to be researched,” he said.

For consulting on the flower arrangements to be used in any wedding, Van Tuyl said he needed at least three weeks’ notice, although more time is welcome.

“For instance, if the wedding is in October, they should come in during July or August, which provides plenty of time. If they want gardenias, calla lilies and others, I need three weeks to special order the flowers. It usually only takes [about] an hour to discuss the wedding orders,” he noted, adding that he does have a book with photographs of different arrangements for couples to look through for inspiration.

Overall, the choice of flowers comes down to what the bride wants, what her tastes are, what colors she likes and what look she wants to create, Kuhlman said. “I need to meet with the bride, the parents and the groom to find out what they like.”