October 21, 2005
We are now celebrating the middle day of the seven-day festival of Succot (the Feast of Tabernacles). During this holiday, we eat and, where possible, sleep in a temporary dwelling (succah) made of wood, cloth, or (in the modern age) plastic, with a roof consisting only of palm leaves, woven bamboo mats or other material derived from the plant world. We do this in order to remind ourselves – to reenact, in a way – the existence of the Children of Israel during the Exodus from Egypt and their forty years’ wandering in the desert: vulnerable, insecure, and dependent only on God.
Paradoxically, perhaps, Succot was also defined by our Sages as our “time of happiness,” the holiday during when we are enjoined to rejoice. (Our own wooden succah is located the parking lot, six floors down from our apartment. We’ve seen it destroyed one year by a car and blown away another year by a storm, and we’ve had neighbors play “pranks” on us such as throwing bottles filled with water onto the succah's roof. There is a running argument in our family as to whether we should be envious of people who build their succah on an open balcony of their apartment or in a garden adjoining their home, because they can enjoy the holiday that much more easily, or feel superior because in our vulnerablility we are really, truly fulfilling the spirit of the commandment.)
One of the ways we add to the holiday's joy is through hospitality – inviting guests, called by their Aramaic name ushpizin, into the succah to share a meal with us. According to Jewish tradition, we welcome more than our friends and family into our temporary home. It is said that on each day of the holiday, the spirit of one of our forefathers comes to visit. On the first night we welcome Abraham, on the second we receive Isaac, and on the third, Jacob – followed in turn by Joseph, Moses, Aaron and finally by King David. Our family marks this by singing a special song welcoming each visitor from the ancient past to our holiday meal. It's really a children's song, but we love singing it even though our children are now adults (or almost adults) – it's one of our little family rituals, which makes us feel close to one another by reminding us of all the years we've been singing together, in the succah and everywhere else.
On the first (and most important) night of the holiday, when we had just finished our song of welcome, Shari surprised us by saying with a smile, “Maybe tomorrow Timmi will come and be our guest in the succah. It will be her birthday, after all.” I carefully watched for the other children’s reactions. Not so long ago, they would most likely have looked down at their plates and not said anything. During the first years of our mourning, some might even have left the table in order to cry in the privacy of their rooms. But when I looked at Aimee, she too was smiling. “Maybe we should ask Angela” – a friend who sometimes sees the spirits of those who have left this world (see “Healing," August 2004) – she said, half-laughingly.
I think that at that moment all of us at the table felt bound to each other in a mixture of contradictory feelings – a warm happiness at our memories of Timmi, a deep sadness that she will never again sing with us, and an intense yearning for the possibility that, in honor of her birthday, she might actually make this Succot “our time of joy” by joining the Patriarch Isaac the next evening as one of the ushpizin at our table.