The thought of our sainted ancestors, Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’akov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon and David, mysteriously arriving in our Sukkah every year can be a little spooky, especially to our little ones. Even their title: The Ushpizin, sounds a little exotic. Well, that part of the mystique took a nose dive for me after we made Aliyah, because it’s the same word Israelis use for hospitalization. It really just means someone who is a guest or temporary resident. The Sukkot version of these visitors comes from the Zohar, which is written in its own Aramaic style. But even with the name de-mystified, there’s still something eerie about the concept of the departed showing up in our huts. So, let’s be courageous and delve deeper.
Why did the Zohar inform us that these heavenly personalities would visit us in our Sukkah? The Zohar suggests that our Sukkah is a little piece of the Garden of Eden, and since these great ZADIKIM are denizens of Paradise, they can visit us while we are basking in our pale glow of Heaven, but only the truly great can break through into our side of the divide. But what right do we have to visit even this faint version of the Celestial Garden? Well, we are at our highest level of purity at this point in the calendar, because we have just been forgiven and welcomed back in the good graces of God by the healing power of Yom Kippur.
There is another idea about these honored guests suggested in Reb Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s great work of Jewish thought called Derech Hashem, The Way of God. This gifted eighteenth-century thinker explains that there are specific, unique aspects to each and every holiday time of the year. That as we travel through the times of our calendar, we revisit impactful events which have indelibly etched their anniversaries on their date and in our psyche. Therefore, we are somehow revisiting the time of the Exodus during Pesach, so we have a Seder to jog our memories and allow ourselves to relive the events. It’s similar for Shavuot and the epiphany at Sinai. On Sukkot, we enter the shade of the Clouds of Glory from the 40 years on the desert.
Rav Luzzatto doesn’t elucidate the temporal connection between the fifteenth of Tishre and the mitzva of sitting in the SUKKAH. I mean why Sukkot now? However, Rav Soloveitchik did. The Rav, based on the Rambam in the introduction to his Commentary to the Mishna, posits that the day after Yom Kippur Moshe began gathering the Jews to hear the principles of the Oral Law, Torah She Ba’al Peh. With the receiving of the second set of Tablets of the Law on Yom Kippur, the Jews also accepted the Oral Law. Over the next few days, Moshe sat and transmitted the principals of Torah She B’al Peh. Finally, on the fifteenth we have Sukkot the celebration of Torah She B’al Peh.
So, to a certain extent, we are brand new people as we enter the Sukkah under that full moon of the 15th of Tishre. As newly fashioned humans we must reestablish ourselves. How do we accomplish this make over? Well, by finding role models to emulate. Enter the Ushpizin! We not only introduce these giants of the spirit, but in many versions of the accompanying text we also specify their spiritual greatness: Avraham the man of CHESED, kindness; Yitzchak, strength of character; Ya’akov, truth and splendor; Yosef, righteousness; Moshe, eternality; Aharon, empathy and majesty; King David, kingship and leadership.
Rav Steinzaltz wrote that the Teshuva process of the Days of Awe isn’t about how many Mitzvot we fulfill or how much Torah we learn. It’s about what kind of people we are. He says the goal is to ‘acquire the true image of humanity’. We need these paragons of virtue to guide us in this quest. It’s the greatest of all human achievements.
When we enter the confines of our Sukkah, we enter a space warp, a time machine and a makeover salon. It’s remarkable and magical, if we let ourselves feel the sacred power. But perhaps there’s a more prosaic approach to these spectral guests. There are authorities that claim that when we invite these Ushpizin into our Sukkot, we should set aside food for them. Since they won’t eat the proffered meal, we should give it to the poor and needy. Many spiritual giants wouldn’t eat in their Sukkot without guests present. Even though these guests from our nation’s amazing past inspire us to great spiritual heights, they should also remind us to be kind neighbors and friends to those in distress. Sometimes the little things are the most important.
So, this Sukkot welcome these specters of lost glory with honor and respect. Then, in repose, consider and contemplate how their spiritual greatness should impact us and our families. Chag Sameach!