Ushpizin in the Sukkah
By Rabbi Ayelet Cohen
Immediately on the heels of the intense spiritual work of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot challenges us to turn our lives inside out again, this time quite literally. The Talmud tells us that for the duration of Sukkot we must leave our permanent dwellings and reside in temporary dwellings (BT Sukkah 2b). By its very nature, the sukkah must feel temporary; we must experience the elements in a way that we do not when we are at home. By leaving the comfort and protection of our homes, making the temporary permanent and the permanent temporary for the duration of the holiday, we are more vulnerable and thus more open. We are able to meet the intention of tze ul’mad from the Passover seder, and, like the Israelites in the wilderness, in that interstitial space have the opportunity to experience revelation.
We are commanded to “rejoice on the festival,” leading us to think of the holidays as a time of family gathering and celebration: our closest friends and families crowded around an overflowing table. But the Rambam challenges us to go further, reframing our interpretation of celebrating the bounty of the holiday.
When one eats and drinks one must also feed the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, along with all other poor and destitute. But one who locks the gates of one’s courtyard, and eats and drinks with one’s own family but does not feed the poor and disheartened, is not rejoicing in the commandment, rather rejoicing in one’s own belly. (Mishnah Torah Hilchot Yom Tov 6:18)
Especially on Sukkot, when we experience more than at any other time of the year what it means to be vulnerable to the elements, we must push ourselves to share our bounty with those who are disenfranchised and those who have no food or no homes. For far too many people, home is always fragile, and vulnerability is a permanent state. The12th-century scholar Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) believed that Sukkot helped reinforce the fact that our wealth and comfort is a gift from God.
Do not say to yourself, “My own power and the strength of my hand have won this wealth for me” (Deut 8:17); remember that the Eternal is your God who gives you strength to achieve wealth. Therefore, at the season of the harvest, people leave their homes, which are full of everything good, and dwell in sukkot, as a reminder that in the wilderness we had no possessions and no homes in which to live. For this reason, the Holy One established Sukkot at the time of the harvest, that the people should not be overly proud of their well furnished houses. (Rashbam, Leviticus 23:43)
The Zohar introduces the concept of ushpizin, spiritual guests who are the counterparts to the physical guests in our sukkah. “One must gladden the poor, for the portion of those [spiritual guests] one invites must go to the poor” (Zohar 103b–104a). Fittingly, Abraham, known for his own hospitality toward wayfarers, was the first guest on the list of ushpizin, further developed by the Kabbalists to include Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. The tradition developed through the generations, and has expanded to include matriarchs—Ma’yan created an ushpizot chart that includes Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Avigail, Huldah, and Esther. Many families have expanded the custom to symbolically invite other ancestors or historical figures into the sukkah—a wonderful opportunity to teach our next generations about significant people whose presence we want to invoke around our table. Jewish social justice organizations, such as American Jewish World Service and Bend the Arc (formerly Jewish Funds for Justice), have created materials that challenge us to apply the principle to thinking about global justice and immigration policy.
JTS Artist-in-Residence Tobi Kahn’s remarkable Ushpizin project further expands this tradition. Kahn invited 19 artists to create a panel exploring the question of who we might want to welcome into the sukkah. The artists, who come from a great variety of traditions and experiences, each bring their own perspective to this question, and have created a beautiful and diverse array of panels that are on display in JTS’s Adele Ginzberg Women’s League Sukkah. One panel is a collaboration between artist Maya Orli Cohen, my sister, and me. It reflects our shared concern that Jewish communities truly embody the value of expanding our sukkah to include those who seek a place within.
Like many rabbis, the most common spiritual questions I face are from people who fear that they are not welcome in Jewish communities. They fear—and too often have gotten the message—that because of their economic or work status, level or type of Jewish education, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, nationality, Jewish status, age, physical or mental ability, level of Jewish observance, or belief or disbelief in God, they are not fully welcome in Jewish life. It is these questions that my sister and I address in our panel.
Our Ushpizin panel is mirrored, and includes two passages in Hebrew and English translation. One is a verse from the fraught reunion of Jacob and Esau, “When I look at your face it’s like seeing the face of God” (Gen. 30:10), the other is poet and liturgist Marcia Falk’s reframing of the parental blessing, “Be who you are, and may you be blessed in all that you are.” Looking into the panel, one sees one’s own face, the text, and the reflection of the sukkah. Each viewer becomes the honored guest in the sukkah. Each person sees their divinity reflected at home in the sukkah.
The tradition of ushpizin teaches us that it is our obligation to make others welcome. Of course, being an outsider is a quintessentially Jewish experience, so in case we have forgotten, on Sukkot we make ourselves a little less comfortable, and try to feel what it is like to be the stranger. Tobi Kahn’s project deepens our experience of this tradition, taking it in a new direction while returning it to its source; reminding us to invite not only spiritual, otherworldly guests, but asking us to expand our hospitality, our generosity, and our concern for those who have been marginalized and disenfranchised in tangible, concrete ways.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.