This past Sunday, as the sun began its daily descent into the horizon, illuminating the sky in a brilliant swath of passionate colors, the couples – young, old and somewhere in-between – made their way in silent dignity and delight toward the wedding canopy.
Decked out in their finest suits, the grooms beamed with pride as they took their places alongside their brides, all of whom were enveloped in white, signifying purity as well as the new chapter they were about to embark upon together in their lives.
The five pairs, all of whom were Bnei Menashe immigrants who recently made aliyah from northeastern India, had immersed that morning in a mikveh (ritual bath), thereby completing their formal return to the people of Israel. As such, it was necessary for them to remarry in a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony – yet another milestone event in their long journey home.
Those tying the knot were among the more than 250 Bnei Menashe who arrived in Israel in mid-December on a special EL AL charter flight arranged by Shavei Israel, the organization I founded and chair, in conjunction with the Aliyah and Absorption Ministry, headed by MK Pnina Tamano-Shata.
The nuptials this week marked the culmination of several group wedding ceremonies that have been held of late, in which a grand total of 47 couples were remarried. Although Health Ministry guidelines precluded the participation of large numbers of relatives and friends, the power of these services more than made up for it.
Among the couples were Maccabi Hnamte, 72, and Sarah Hnamte, 70, from the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram, who have been happily married for 49 years. Their two children immigrated to Israel in 2003 and they had not seen them for more than 17 years, until their arrival in the Jewish state just three months ago.
"We're very grateful to make aliyah and very excited to join our children and grandchildren at last," the Hnamtes told me. "After 49 years, we have had the privilege to dress up nicely and get married again, only this time under a huppah here in the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel."
Of course, every Jewish wedding resonates with the private, personal joy of the couple. But as I looked on as the blissful unions were forged, I was overwhelmed by the energy and weight of the moment. After all, the Bnei Menashe are descendants of the tribe of Manasseh, one of the Ten Lost Tribes that was exiled from the Land of Israel by the Assyrian Empire over 2,700 years ago.
By any logical yardstick, they should have faded into the mists of history, just another one of countless examples of ancient peoples uprooted from their land and dispatched toward the unknown.
But their fidelity to faith and zealous love of Zion would not countenance disappearing. In the process, they defied exile and wandering, loss and doubt, carefully transmitting across the generations the intense belief that somehow, one day, they would return.
THEN I NOTICED the central role of precisely this theme in the Sheva Brachot, the seven blessings that are recited at the ceremony, two of which are centered on the restoration of the Jewish people to their homeland.
"Bring great happiness and joy to the one who was barren," reads the fifth blessing in a biblical allusion to Zion, "as her children return to her in joy. Blessed are You, Lord, who gladdens Zion through her children."
The following blessing is even more plaintive and assertive, pleading with the Creator, "Soon, Lord our God, may there be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the sounds of joy and gladness, the sounds of the bridegroom and bride."
What, I wondered, does the ingathering of the exiles have to do with a bride and groom uniting in holy matrimony? And why highlight this in particular at the climax of the wedding ceremony?
The answer was standing there right before me in the form of these Bnei Menashe couples.
Each is a link in the age-old chain of our national saga. Each is inextricably fused with Jewish history and bound to Jewish destiny. Their personal joy is our collective jubilation as we celebrate that – despite the best efforts of our foes in an historically hostile world – yet another bayit ne'eman, a faithful home in Israel, is set to be built.
In the case of the Bnei Menashe in particular, with their remarkable tale, this is even more pronounced.
As the late former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jonathan Sacks, so eloquently noted in the Koren Siddur, "Marriage is one of the supreme institutions of Judaism, the first mentioned in the Bible, and the one spoken of by the prophets in their deepest moments as the most compelling metaphor for God's relationship with His people."
Indeed, a key component of that relationship is the Divine promise to bring our exile to an end and restore us to our former glory. By embracing the private joy of the married couple, we amplify it and imbue it with national, Zionist and even cosmic significance, all of which are readily on display when a Bnei Menashe bride and groom consecrate the marital covenant.
This fusion is exemplified by the breaking of a glass at the ceremony's conclusion, when we recite verses five and six of Psalm 137, invoking the age-old Jewish vow to remember Jerusalem and put the city above one's greatest joy.
That is something the Bnei Menashe, and the Jewish people as a whole, never failed to do. And that, perhaps more than anything else, is the defining moment of what can truly be called a marriage made in Zion.