Paul Mirbach

The Festival of the Tabernacles and Oshpizin

A long, long time ago, when the Jewish people left Egypt, they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, before coming to the Holy Land. During those 40 years, the Jews were once again nomads, homeless – and every night they set up temporary dwellings, out of blankets, and cloth, and what they could find around them, for shelter. It was a time when we were exposed, not only to the ravages of weather and nature, but also to dangers from without, with very few natural defenses to protect us.

But, before I discuss further about Sukkot, I want to ask what I think is a very pertinent question; How did we come to be slaves in Egypt in the first place? We know from the Tanach, that there was a terrible drought in Canaan at the time, and Jews, led by Reuben and Shimon travelled south, seeking pastures and grain for their people and livestock. There they reunited with Joseph, and then Jacob was brought to Egypt too, to reunite with his beloved son. So far, so good. But, when the drought ended, why did the Jews not go back? Why did they choose to stay in a foreign land, and abandon their own land, as promised them by Gd? I think it is important to understand this about ourselves and our history. Was it out of convenience and comfort, getting used to a sedentary lifestyle and being sick of tending cattle and goats? More pointedly, can it be argued that our choice to stay in Egypt constitutes a de facto forfeiture of our right to claim Canaan as our Promised Land? These questions are left unanswered, and I ponder them, with the perspective on how that impacts on our Israel today, and our claim that all of what was historically our land, was promised us by Gd and given us by his divine decision. I have no answers, just questions. I will just leave this here for you to contemplate.

Forty years to be wandering in the wilderness is a long time. The distance between Egypt and Jerusalem, is about 750 miles. Even if you walked five miles a week, that would take less than three years. If you multiply that by 10, to take into account losing one’s way etc. we are still left with 10 whole years unaccounted for. Why so long? The explanation given us by our sages, is that Gd extended our wandering, in order for a new generation of Jews to be born, a generation not born with the burden of slavery and subjugation beaten into their consciousness. A generation that could be fearless and adventurous, hardened by a Spartan lifestyle. A generation of warriors. That’s logical. I have only to look at the Israeli soldiers who fought and won the Six Day War, who were the children of Holocaust survivors, to appreciate the wisdom of such a design. However, I also believe that there is another reason, less spoken about; that is we should not forget what it feels like to be homeless for 40 years. We should not forget the feeling of rootlessness, of not having a home and of not being able to have a sense of permanence — always exposed to the elements and to dangers, always having to be aware of our surroundings. It is also this sense of vulnerability we must remember, when celebrating Sukkot — we must not forget where we came from.

Sukkot is also associated with the minhag of Oshpizin, best translated as “open hospitality”. It is a noble and very human gesture of sharing one’s shelter with another who does not have one. At least, that it what I believe its origin is. It is considered a mitzvah to perform Oshpizin on Sukkot, and throughout Israel, and the world, in private sukkot, and public ones, we celebrate our hospitality with those around us. It’s just a real pity that we don’t actually look beyond the ends of our noses. In our cities, we have homeless people without shelter, seeking any warmth they can muster on these cold autumn nights. So what if they aren’t Jewish? Should the mitzvah of Oshpizin apply only to Jews? Surely, the real mitzvah, not the commercialized, meaningless lip service to a mitzvah, of inviting friends over, is to provide some shelter and food for those who are vulnerable and exposed, like we were? I am not advocating specifically going out into the streets and picking up a stranger, although that would be awesome. I think the mitzvah of Oshpizin would also be fulfilled if we took upon ourselves this festival, to donate to homeless shelters, or soup kitchens. Symbolically, I would consider the mitzvah done, if we did that. And, if we could do some community outreach for homeless people and have a hot meal provided in a community sukkah, for instance, that too would be absolutely awesome.

That’s on a personal level. The mitzvah of Oshpizin should all apply on a national level. Here in Israel we have tens of thousands of refugees, asylum seekers, from regions of conflict, violence and genocide. They come from Africa; Darfur, Eritrea, Sudan. They are rootless, like we were in our wandering. They too are vulnerable, bereft of a sense of permanence, like we experienced. Today, while the Israeli government is trying to make their sojourn in our country as uncomfortable and inhospitable as possible, we should remember where we came from and what it feels like. We should remember our grandfather’s generation, Holocaust survivors, with no homes and nowhere to go, and how we were dependent on others to provide us with Oshpizin. Now it is our turn. Let not our hearts harden so much that we forget our own experiences and make a mockery of the mitzvah of Oshpizin. The Western World is being flooded with refugees from war zones; people who have lost their homes and their livelihoods. People whose lives have been shattered by bombs and massacres. People whose families have been torn apart by death and loss, who have gathered up the remnants of what was their life, relinquished their dignity and fled to another land, with hands outstretched for what little grace and succor they can receive. THAT is also Oshpizin! Given our history, and cognizant of the mitzvah and message of Sukkot, surely we should embrace this opportunity to once again be a light unto nations?

Hag sukkot sameach.

About the Author
Paul Mirbach (PEM), made Aliya from South Africa to kibbutz Tuval in 1982 with a garin of Habonim members. Together they built a new kibbutz, transforming rocks and mud into a green oasis in the Gallilee. Paul still lives on Tuval. He calls it his little corner of Paradise.