Every Succos, Ariel and I went together to the Young Israel of Century City to pick up our arba minim, the four species. For Ariel, I always ordered, Mehudar, the most expensive, for myself
the moderately priced lulav and esrog sufficed. This year, I drove to shul, and stood in line. Ahead of me was a father and his son. The boy, maybe eight years old, was excited that his father was buying him his very own lulav and esrog. "Daddy, Daddy, can I shake the lulav?" cried the little boy. Smiling inwardly at the child's enthusiasm, I tried not to feel the emptiness of being without Ariel. I wanted to concentrate on the happiness that others were experiencing. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are over and now is the season of happiness. Rabbi Muskin even reminded us that it's a mitzvah to be happy. To fulfill a mitzvah you must do something: sing, dance, sit in the Succah and talk with your guests; there must be an effort. Faith and feeling are simply not enough. Judaism is a religion of behavior. And so, all through Succos I tried my best to act happy. But in all honesty, I failed. Decorating the Succah is usually a family affair filled with laughter and good natured jokes.
We all worked hard at decorating the Succah.
Karen's eye for hanging the fruit this year was better than ever. I put up the logo for Seraphic Press, a drawing of The Hebrew Kid that is based on a photo of Ariel. But always in the back of my mind was the awful fact of Ariel's absence.
The Succah is a symbol of our faith in HaShem, our way of demonstrating that even in this flimsy structure God protects and watches over us.
But God did not protect Ariel.
And so, sitting and eating in the Succah did not provide me with the comfortable metaphor that has existed for years past. I know I'm supposed to put all that aside. I know that I am obligated to see beyond death, but I miss Ariel too much.
A few days ago, I told Ariel's Rebbe, Rabbi Gruman, that when Ariel died, a holiness that had permeated our lives simply vanished. Rabbi Gruman responded: "Maybe there's even more holiness in your life now." I considered this, wanting it to be true. Perhaps I'm just a weak vessel unable to see, hear, feel, sense this holiness that Rabbi Gruman is so certain of.
Several years ago, when Ariel was recovering from cancer and chemotherapy, he dragged his sleeping bag into the Succah.
"Ariel, you can't sleep in there," I said.
"You're still sick. You're too weak."
"Dad, I'll feel even worse if I can't perform this mitzvah."
Of course, I relented. But all through the night I woke up every hour on the hour, trudged downstairs, and peeked into the Succah to make sure that Ariel was okay. For a few hours, Ariel learned. Then he nodded off to sleep, his Talmud still open on his chest. I remember standing in the doorway, watching him and wondering: How can he endure so much suffering and yet subject himself to even more discomfort by sleeping in the Succah? The answer, of course, is that sleeping in the Succah was a comfort for Ariel. His belief was total. In spite of the cancer, in spite of all the pain and a life lived so frequently under the shadow of illness, the walls of the Succah stood between Ariel and despair. For Ariel, observance of mitzvahs was the only rational response to an unjust world. For me, Ariel's devotion to performing the mitzvahs was the only true heroism I have ever witnessed. And I know that if ever I articulated this thought to Ariel, he would have rejected this as romantic nonsense. Which I would have interpreted as even more heroic.
I want to be comforted by the thin walls of the Succah. I want to feel and take joy in the sheltering shadows of the Succah and s'chach. But in this season where the death of our son resonates more powerfully than anything else, the words of Koheles (Ecclesiastes) echo with an awesome power: A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth endures forever... Sometimes a righteous man perishes for all his righteousness... Sometimes there are righteous men who are treated as if they had done according to the deeds of the wicked...Once more I saw under the sun that the race is not won by the swift.
For the first time in my life, the reading of Koheles is the central experience of my holiday. In years past, I would silently endure this long and perplexing text. But this time, I listened to every word and understood King Solomon's rage at the indifference of the world. I too rage at indifference. Ariel was here and now inexplicably he is gone.
I sit in our Succah and remember September 2002, Ariel's last Succos, when Ariel's friends came to visit, bringing pizza and soda. They sang and told stories until Ariel was too tired to continue. He was cold and and had to bundle up in his down jacket. His body was bloated from the medication he was taking. I helped him inside with his oxygen cannister.
"I'm lucky," he said.
"To have such good friends."
"Yes, Ariel, you're very lucky," I managed to agree.
I know that I have to stanch this helpless anger. To mourn excessively is a sin and Ariel would not approve. I sit in the Succah, I remember his face, his smile. A breeze blows and the walls shiver.
Karen comments: Succos was very hard, each holiday that goes by only increases my longing for Ariel. As time passes the realization that I will not see Ariel ever again become more palpable, the ache sharpens. We were blessed this year by invitations from dear friends. Their warmth, bountiful food and stimulating conversation made us feel privileged. I actually asked Robert, "What did we do to merit such sterling friends?" They welcomed us to share the joy of the holiday, and I don't think we let them down. But the emptiness felt even more bottomless once we returned home. The convivial joy, sharing of ideas and good food was a welcome respite, but also increased the contrast of what our lives used to be like--and the irrefutable truth that our relief was only a temporary distraction. The loss deepens. But I do conjure up some comfort. I like to think that Ariel embellished our "noi succah" the beautification of the succah. For indeed, the hanging fruit, the leaf garlands, the light fixture, even the table cloth seemed sharper and more glistening this year. Ariel's spirit was hovering there, I tell myself. I glanced at his picture on the wall of the succah and his smile reassured me that this was so. This was my joy, my Simchat Chag.