One of the traditions of Sukkot is to invite special guests into our Sukkah, to join us each night of the festival. As you can see from the liturgy below, these guests aren't the kind that take up a lot of space: It's a virtual welcome, inviting our long-gone Biblical ancestors to celebrate with us.
This year, when so much of our hosting is virtual and there are many who won't be able to join together to celebrate the holidays, what might we learn from this ancient practice? What's the value of being welcoming when we can't host people physically, and how do we decide whose presence we yearn for in these celebratory moments?
As this prayer indicates, the Sukkah is about finding a sense of security and tranquility, even as we sit in a rickety hut, exposed to the elements. In this somewhat vulnerable place, we invite the ushpizin, or guests, to join us. Why? And why invite those who can join in spirit only?
The text below comes from a collection of Rabbi Isaac Luria's Kabalistic thought, and provides insight into why we might invite guests that won't show up.
By imagining ourselves surrounded by our Biblical ancestors, we ensure that we will have enough food to feed to the poor. As we invite each of these famous personalities in to the Sukkah, we mentally designate a space and some food. When these guests fail to physically manifest, we suddenly realize that we have extra to share with those in need. You can find a similar idea in the writing of Maimonides, who says that the joy we feel when we sit in our Sukkah is meant to be the happiness that emerges from a sense of accomplished hospitality; on Sukkot, we come out of our homes and can see those around us who are suffering and need our help.
But why these people? How did the heroes of the Bible become our chosen guests? The Kabbalistic text below provides a theory.
When our guests are imaginary, we are free to distill their presence to its most essential components. Real people are complicated and multi-faceted, but when we contemplate them in their absence, we can choose to focus on the quality we most value. Is there someone you will miss this Sukkot? What qualities and strengths do they bring to the table? Focusing on these questions in their absence provides an opportunity to recognize what others add to our lives, as well as to think about what characteristics we need to emulate at this moment.
Questions for Discussion:
- How might we maintain our concern for the well-being of others even as we work to ensure that we and our families have what we need? What can we do within our own spheres of influence to make sure we are setting aside resources for those who need extra support?
- Who are you missing right now? What qualities and strengths do they bring to the table?
- The last six months have been a vulnerable time, when even the walls of our home don't seem to protect us. How might the Sukkah - by definition, a space of vulnerability - challenge us to think about the characteristics we need most to cope right now?