The first Sukkah I ever helped my family build fell down. The flimsy structure just wasn’t strong enough to withstand the wind that year. I was disappointed, but we still enjoyed a fun holiday with family and friends. Through the years I’ve learned that as important as the Sukkah itself is, the people who enter into it with you matter more.
Sukkot is truly a holiday of hospitality. I remember another year when we lived in a neighborhood with only a few Jewish families who built Sukkot. From our friends’ adjacent backyard Sukkah we heard the words of their Kiddush, their prayer over wine to consecrate the holiday. Everyone in our Sukkah yelled out, “Amen!” Later on, we walked around the block to share our dessert with them.
The Jewish mystical tradition invites a variety of guests to join with us in the Sukkah. Known as Ushpizin – Righteous Guests, it is customary to welcome our spiritual ancestors into our Sukkot: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and King David. We also welcome the Ushpizot: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Avigail, Hannah, Huldah, and Queen Esther. (Extra credit if you can identify who everybody is!)
The ritual words with which we welcome our righteous guests ask God to be present among us. The prayer reminds us to “provide sufficient food and water to those who are hungry and thirsty.” They also give us the chance to imagine. Living or dead, who would you like to sit down with over dinner? What real or fictional personality would you like to speak with? What caring for another would you choose to provide?
We need this attitude in our lives, in our society. At a time of shrill public rhetoric and false fears about others, how uplifting it would be to meet some of those we don’t know, to sit with them and break bread, to talk with one another, and to grow comfortable with each other.
That’s my plan this Sukkot, assuming my Sukkah stays up. In addition to our family and friends with whom we will dine in the Sukkah, I’m going to sit back and ask myself who I want to meet. Then after the holiday, I hope I’ll follow through and get to know someone I don’t know today. Join me. Let’s add a new and necessary purpose to Sukkot. If we reach out to one another, maybe our holiday of hospitality can help us become a more hospitable and respectful society.
Hag Sameah! Enjoy a joyous Sukkot!