Ushpizin: Welcoming Guests for Sukkot

Last year when I wrote about Sukkot, I wrote about the four species we gather together and wave on this Jewish harvest festival par excellence: the etrog (citron), hadas (myrtle), aravah (willow), and lulav (palm branch). These green and growing things represent the harvest. They also represent the four elements and four levels of being: etrog, the round fruit, is earth, willow, the plant that grows by rivers, is water, myrtle, the fragrant plant, is air, and the brittle flame-shaped palm branch is fire. Together the four species represent all bounty. While the High Holidays ground us in the spiritual, Sukkot grounds us in the physical. The harvest booths of Sukkot we dwell in during the seven days of the holiday remind us that we live with walls and roofs open to the world. We are always connected to the stars and the earth. Sukkot brings this reality home to us as part of a joyful celebration of the earth’s abundance. On Sukkot the Divine is a joyful mother, sharing the milk of Her body with all Her children. The sukkah represents Her sheltering arms, open to allow us to see the stars.

This year, as I contemplate the approach of Sukkot, an added dimension of Sukkot reveals itself to me: the spirit journeying we do at this season. On each night of Sukkot, we invite sacred ancestors to enter our sukkah. On the first night, the night of chesed or love, we invite Abraham and Sarah. On the second night, the night of gevurah or strength, we invite Isaac and Rebekah. On the third night, the night of tiferet or beauty, we invite Jacob and Leah. On the fourth night, the night of netzach or eternity, we invite Moses and Tziporah. On the fifth night, the night of hod or glory, we invite Aaron and Miriam. On the sixth night, the night of yesod or foundation, we invite Joseph and Tamar. And on the seventh night, the night of malkhut or dignity, we invite David and Rachel. (This is my tradition; at least where the female invitees are concerned, there are many others. Another common tradition is to invite Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David, along with the seven female prophets listed in the Talmud: Sarah,Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther. There are also Talmudic reports of Elijah visiting the sukkot of the sages.)

Each of these ancestors represents a Divine face revealed through a human life. By welcoming them, we welcome the best in ourselves. My family has the tradition, just before bentching (giving thanks for the meal), of inviting, along with the traditional sacred guests, anyone else whom we believe embodies the spirit of the day: artists, peace activists, relatives, even legendary characters. By doing this, we fill our sukkah with living spirits whose work transforms the world.

The traditional Ushpizin prayer states: “I invite to my meal the exalted guests Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Leah (etc., list all sacred guests you are planning to invite during Sukkot). May it please you_____ (insert names of sacred guests you are inviting on that particular evening), my exalted guests, that all the other exalted guests dwell with me and with you.” The prayer suggests that when we invite our ancestors into our lives, they bring more presences and beings and spirit-creatures with them. When we link to one soul, we link to all souls. The unity of the web of souls is part of the teaching of Sukkot.

This is why, on the last day of Sukkot, a day known as Hoshanah Rabbah (great salvation), we process with the lulav in seven elaborate circles. Each circle represents the sacred forces we have drawn down into our earthy festival booths. All together, the circles represent our bond with the universe. As we pray for rain, the cycle of water, to bless us in the physical realm, we also pray for the invisible circle of spirit to bless us as well.

The harvest festival of Sukkot, the quintessential earth-based Jewish holiday, begins on the evening of Oct. 6. This essay was written just prior to sukkot 2005.

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