The Importance of Sukkot

By Rabbi Scott Shafrin | Special for the AJT

Sometimes, I feel like Sukkot gets a raw deal.

Rabbi Scott Shafrin

Don’t get me wrong, I understand.  We’ve just gone through the intensity of two days of Rosh Hashanah, which this year led right into Shabbat, as well as Yom Kippur, two gigantic holidays spaced only ten days apart. This was following the intense personal introspection that traditionally starts several weeks before when the month of Elul begins. And after this marathon of liturgy, festive meals and repentance concludes, we have only five short days to get ready for Sukkot, an eight day harvest festival bonanza.

Given all of that, I could understand why some people might be a little put off by the idea of Sukkot.  But I need to shine a special spotlight on this holiday; after all the Torah calls Sukkot Z’man Simchateinu – “The Time of Our Rejoicing!” After having so much time to think inwardly and reconnect to the people we want to be, Sukkot gives us the chance to look outside of ourselves and connect to the people around us.

This is why I love one particular tradition on Sukkot more than almost any other. The custom of welcoming in ushpizin. This is often an overlooked ritual tradition, but I believe it provides us not only with an important link to our history, but also serves as a reminder of the type of people we want to be now and every day of our lives.

The word ushpizin is an Aramaic term meaning literally meaning “guests,” who are traditionally welcomed into the sukkah. While the tradition of welcoming guests (hachnasat orchim)is nothing new to Jewish life, it takes on a special meaning during Sukkot.  For example, our ancestors Abraham and Sarah were known for their hospitality, so much so that their tent was open on all sides to welcome guests who come in from every direction. Similarly, our sukkot are not meant to have four completely enclosed walls, but should have space open as a sign we are always happy to bring in other people to join in our celebrations.

In addition to the friends and family we may invite for meals during Sukkot, these ushpizin whom we are welcoming are specifically a host of our Biblical forbearers who we invite to join us as we enter the sukkah, in addition to the friends and family who may share our table, our sukkah, and our lives for the evening. This idea originated in the middle ages and comes out of the Zohar, the central text of the Jewish mystical tradition called Kabbalah, which suggests that some people will earn the honor of having seven biblical figures visit their sukkah: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and King David. The 16th Century Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, took this idea and created a ritual which welcomes these ancestors, as well as any who would like to come and eat, to enjoy our festive meal with us. Modern thinkers have also expanded the list so that each of these biblical guests has a female counterpart: Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah, and Ruth.

Each night, we welcome a pair of these heroic figures from our Jewish past, praising their best attributes, such as faith, strength, compassion, joy, and a commitment to creating a better world through their actions.  By calling upon these figures from our collective Jewish memory, and praising their good qualities out loud, we force ourselves to recognize the value of these qualities in order to, hopefully, live up to them in our own lives. Just as we hope that our children might follow the best example set for them, this ritual transforms Sukkot into a reminder for all of us on how we can become the best versions of ourselves.

Yes, we have just finished a long process of teshuvah, thinking about where we have made mistakes in the past year and trying to fix them.  Now, at the beginning of a new year, why don’t we try to start off on the right foot, instead of waiting until the end of the year to repair the relationships or the parts of our life we have damaged?  Let’s invite others into our homes, our lives, and our hearts, to dwell with us as a part of a community, to create a world in which any day might be a z’man simchateinu, a time for us to rejoice.

 

Rabbi Scott Shafrin is currently the Rabbi In Residence at The Epstein School. He was Born in Milwaukee, WI and  received his B.A. from Brandeis University.