When I was in college, I lived across the country from my parents. We weren’t quite so casual about air travel then as now, so I had a bunch of long-time family friends I had adopted as “surrogate families” whom I could visit – for laundry, for holidays, or just to stay in touch with something familiar.
One of those families was Jewish and observed many of the Orthodox traditions. I learned a lot from them, and the wonderful quiet of weekend Sabbaths I spent with them. I also spent a lot of time there that wasn’t Sabbath time – and since their holidays and festivals were often not on my calendar, I never really knew when I would arrive in time for one.
I loved the way they welcomed me, no matter how bad my timing. And I especially loved a tradition I learned one time when I arrived early enough to help Claire prepare. She asked me to set the table, and no matter how I counted her guest list, it was one short of the number of table settings she had given me. I thought it was lovely that they prepared for an extra guest so none of us would ever feel intrusive.
I was not entirely correct in my understanding of the gesture, she told me. The table setting was not for the uninvited guest who might appear at the door – though he or she would also be welcomed. The extra place was set in hope that Elijah would appear for the celebration.
I don’t remember what feast it was, but I do remember the tradition. And I think it’s a tradition we can adapt, even if we don’t actually put out an extra set of silverware and wine glasses.
In the midst of all the mixed joy and turmoil this holiday brings, I think I will try to remember – and to celebrate – that we do have an unseen guest at the table: No matter how fun or how difficult each of us may find the party, God wouldn’t miss it and is right there with us, sharing every moment.
I think that’s worth a toast, don’t you?
And my thanks to all of you for reminding me . . . .