Sukkot is one of Judaism’s more social holidays. The sukkah, the booth in which we traditionally eat and sleep for eight days, is an outward celebration of Jewish life, and it is customarily placed somewhere that is accessible to guests. “Sukkah hopping,” visiting various friends’ and families’ sukkot during the holiday, is an important custom. I still remember celebrating Sukkot in Israel during my first year of cantorial school. I could hardly walk down the streets of Jerusalem without bumping into one of the various sukkot set up by various restaurants, where people could eat during the holiday. I was able to visit many different sukkot, and my friends and I even held our own potlucks in the HUC sukkah. Here at Temple Beth Shalom, we usually have several gatherings where we get to celebrate with each other as a community.
There is a name for the guests that we invite to our sukkah: ushpizin, from the Aramaic word for guests. In addition to friends and family, it is traditional to invite those who are in need into the sukkah. This tradition is inspired by Abraham, who, according to our Torah, welcomed wayward guests to his tent, including the three messengers of G-d who were the harbingers of Isaac’s birth. Additionally, our mystical tradition teaches that we welcome our ancestors into our sukkah, first patriarchs and matriarchs, then leaders, and then royalty. According to our tradition, we welcome the ushpizin as follows: on the first day, Abraham and Ruth; on the second day, Isaac and Sarah; and the third day, Jacob and Rebecca; on the fourth day, Moses and Miriam; on the fifth day, Aaron and Deborah; on the sixth day, Joseph and Tamar; and on the seventh day, David and Rachel.
This year, our celebration of Sukkot will look different from ever before. We will not be able to host large gatherings on our campus. Sukkah hopping may not be feasible. We might not be able to have friends and family over. This poem by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat spoke to me:
In any other year I would fill this sukkah
with friends. When Sukkot falls late, they know to bring a jacket
and wear fingerless gloves to cup around hot mulled cider
beneath the rustling cornstalks and the full moon.
This year we wave to each other from across the street.
If only we could sit together. If only we could embrace.
How can I welcome Abraham and Sarah, David and
Rachel, when I can’t welcome my own neighbors?
The channel between us — pixels on a screen —
only goes so far. G-d Who accompanies
in this isolating wilderness, connect me with the beloveds
I can’t invite in, this year.
It saddens me that this Sukkot will be observed with physical distance. However, when I think of our spiritual ushpizin, our ancestors who join us in the sukkah, I am filled with peace. We can’t open up our sukkot to the wider community, but opening it up to our biblical ancestors helps us to remember the years of tradition that came before us. We sit on the shoulders of giants, and whenever we enjoy a meal in our personal sukkah, we remember their deeds. We remember who we are as a Jewish people. This Sukkot may be different, but we will be together again. I encourage you all to take a look at this collection of poetry from the multidenominational Jewish educational organization Bayit: https://yourbayit.org/ushpizin-liturgy-for-sukkot-in-time-of-covid/ . Some of the poetry is introspective, some hopeful, and all guaranteed to add kavanah (intention) to your Sukkot observance. Chag sameach.
Cantor Sara Kheel