Last year succos, I went to my parents for the first days. My brother and sister-in-law were there with their two kids, and my sister walked over for a few meals with her husband and their two kids.
The house tends to get pretty full over yom tov. When marrieds come back with their kids, singles are displaced from their bedrooms, and everyone basically plays musical chairs with bedrooms.
Extra chairs are stuffed around the already-full 12-foot table, highchairs are squeezed in at the end; babies get passed around from hand to hand, toddlers wander around, and adults take frequent breaks from conversation to engage in games when the kids demand it.
There’s a fairly community-style approach to taking care of the kids at that point. No one is actually assigned to “babysit” the kids at any point, but whoever is available pitches in whenever necessary. It’s a bit of a break for the parents, who now have many more willing hands to help out.
The first night, I wasn’t one of those constantly playing with the kids, though I did engage when they demanded it of me. There were enough adults to take care of everyone, and playing with kids is not my strong suit. I stuck to helping out in the kitchen.
On the first day, I was up pretty early in the morning. The men and boys were all in shul already, and my mother and sisters were still sleeping. Only my sister-in-law was awake with her two kids, giving them breakfast.
The three-year-old was a bit whiny, and the one-year-old howled every time her mother paid attention to her older brother. When I got to the dining room, I saw my sister-in-law engaged in this increasingly aggravating dance of spooning food into her daughter’s mouth while attempting to shake off her son’s hand from her sleeve, then turning to talk to her son while attempting to ignore her daughter’s shrieks.
So I figured I’d pitch in. “Hey, Yaakov Shimon, did you see the new toy Bobby and Zaidy got for you?”
My nephew slid off the chair, abandoned tchepering his mother, and came over to play with me. We sat on the floor and unpacked the new toy.
My sister-in-law looked over at me uncertainly, spoon hovering in midair in front of her daughter’s mouth. When the spoon didn’t come any closer, the baby howled and used her fist to flip it over. She got her mother’s full attention again, and I tried to ignore the obvious doubt my sister-in-law had about me playing with her son.
As we played with the new toy, my nephew sang songs. As is to be expected, they were Jewish songs he learned in playgroup. Most of them were about Rosh Hashana and Succos and Simchas Torah. I cheered him on as he sang (wildly off-key) songs like “Dip the Apple in the Honey” and “V’samachta B’chagecha.”
When he got to “Torah Tziva Lanu Moshe,” he forgot some of the words. He got frustrated, repeating the last line he knew over and over like a broken record, apparently waiting for some magical moment where he’d suddenly remember the rest of the song.
I prompted him, singing the next few words. His face lit up and he joyfully belted out the rest of the song.
I wonder if my sister-in-law knew and appreciated how hard that was for me, how weird that moment was, that I didn’t say “let’s sing another song.”
At that point, I was struggling with having to say words, phrases, brachos that I didn’t believe in. I choked and was unable to recite the Haggadah the year before. I perfected my already-expert-level ability to mumble bentching without actually saying any words, but my arms were heavy each time I had to reach out for a bentcher and flip pages, making a pretense that fooled no one. I had stopped saying “amen” to kiddish and motzi, because who cares, and no, I don’t believe.
And yet there I was, teaching a little boy the words to a song that glorifies the commandments of the Torah – which I didn’t believe in. Reinforcing the messages he got that this was the one and only truth, when I didn’t think there was any truth in it at all. Singing along, a smile on my face, while I ached and wanted to scream.