Sunday, October 16, 2016

Ushpizin: Having Sukkot Guests as a Spiritual Act

Sukkot: the Jewish harvest festival. It has a number of particular rituals that may seem peculiar to some. One Sukkot practice that is not as peculiar is that of the Ushpizin (האושפיזין). According to the Zohar (Emor 103a), the spiritual energy of Sukkot is so intense that seven souls leave the Garden of Eden to participate in the celebration of Sukkot. Each one of the seven spiritual guests corresponds to a different day of Sukkot:

  1. Abraham represents benevolence and love (חסד)
  2. Isaac represents restraint and discipline (גבורה)
  3. Jacob represents beauty, harmony, and truth (תפארת)
  4. Moses represents victory and endurance (נצח)
  5. Aaron represents slender and humility (הוד)
  6. Joseph represents foundation and connection (יסוד)
  7. David represents  sovereignty, receptiveness, and leadership (מלכות)

This is meant to inspire each and every one of us to take on the characteristics that each of these biblical figures represents. By manifesting these attributes, the divine light shines down upon this world (Derech Hashem 4:2:2,5). However, the passage in the Zohar does not end there:

"One must also gladden the poor, and the portion [that would otherwise have been set aside for these Ushpizin] guests should go to the poor. For if a person sits in the shadow of faith and invites those guests and does not give their portion [to the poor], they all remain distant from him. One should not say 'I will first satisfy myself with the food and drink, and I shall give the leftovers to the poor.' Rather, the first of everything must be for one's guests. If one gladdens his guests and satisfies them, G-d rejoices over him. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the others shower him..." -Zohar, Emor 103a

On a personal level, I generally stay away from mystical teachings because the level of esoteric thought is so much that it leaves much to be desired in a practical sense. However, I think the teaching in this particular passage is astounding. If you want to be spiritual, it is not enough to have lofty thoughts and ideas. They have to be translated into lofty deeds. The idea of manifesting the spiritual into the physical is so important that the Zohar states that those who do not feed the poor greatly diminish the spiritual aspect of Sukkot.

It is Jewish law that during the holidays, it is incumbent upon us to feed the widow, the orphaned, converts, and any other poor and destitute individuals (Mishneh Torah, Shevivat Yom Tov 6:18). However, why is this so emphasized during the holiday of Sukkot? Aside from being important biblical figures, each one of the seven guests mentioned above dealt with uprootedness during the course of their lives. Each one knew what it was like to be wandering and looking for shelter. The Rashbam, in his commentary to Leviticus 23:43, teaches that we are to leave the comfort of our homes to dwell in a temporary booth, to act as a reminder of the ancient Israelites who did not have homes or much in material possessions. While Sukkot teaches us to be happy in spite of the temporary and uncertain nature of life, the Zohar teaches that part of being spiritual is making sure that peoples' needs are taken care of during Sukkot.

Is this a ringing endorsement to end global poverty? Of course not! Pirkei Avot [2:21] reminds us that just because we cannot complete the task, it does not mean we desist from completing the task. Jewish tradition teaches that we do our small part during Sukkot to help out others in need, whether those needs are physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual in nature. We are not meant to celebrate in isolation while others are suffering. Even during Sukkot, which is referred to as "the Time of Our Happiness," we do not act as if others do not matter. Quite the opposite! We share with those who are less fortunate to remind us that we are in this together, that we are human, and that when push comes to shove, we are all faced with the ephemeral state of living on this planet.

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