September 27, 2007
Sukkahs are for sleeping
Sukkot reminds us of precariousness of Jewish history and improbability of our survival
In the days before our property was secured with gates and fences, camping out was somewhat frightful to some of the more timid children, until they hit on a solution.
"Do you think we could have some extra ushpizin in the sukkah?"
Ushpizin are the traditional visitors on Sukkot, the spirits of seven biblical figures -- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David -- each of whom joins us on a different day of the holiday, according to the Jewish mystical tradition. Shuli Rand brought them to the attention of the non-Jewish world with his delightful movie by the same name.
I was puzzled. Why were the kids trying to tamper with tradition?
"Just whom would you like us to invite, besides the regulars?" I asked.
"Two special ushpizin," they responded. "Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson."
We never did require the services of the special forces. The traditional ushpizin, however, have rendered faithful service to our household.
Sukkot, it seems to me, suffers from an abundance of thematic riches. Our literature explores so many different themes associated with the observance. Sitting around the festive holiday table, we discuss bitachon, or dependence upon God's Providence. With walls of thin plywood and roofs of California palm provided by the city of Los Angeles, we talk about our own strategic envelope -- of protection coming from above, rather than through the strength of our walls.
The clumsiness of the sukkah makes us examine the fragility of life, the nonpermanence of all our edifices. After a few days of this, we are no longer astonished by how much happiness and camaraderie comes with living simply, with nothing but a table, chairs and food shared with family and friends.
We ask ourselves what it takes to make us happy and how happiness is related to the baring of our souls and the unburdening of dead weight from our souls that Yom Kippur brings. We ponder the difference between the covering of sechach above us, which readily admits Divine illumination, and the opaque coverings that some cultures erect, shutting out any connection to the Divine.
We try to implement the feeling of unity of the Jewish people invoked by the Four Species that the Torah instructs us to take in hand on the first day of the holiday, each with its own flavor and texture, each symbolic of a different kind of Jew, and that become a mitzvah only when they are joined together.
Why, though, did our Creator park this treasure-trove of meaning in a lot that was already full? Weren't Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur enough to explain to skeptical employers, hearing about yet another absence from the office? Wouldn't January have been a better time for another holiday, maybe the week after spending winter school break with the kids? We could use a holiday then.
A holiday devoted to happiness and joy is the perfect chaser to the strong, dark brew of the reverence and sobriety of the Days of Awe. Associating Judaism with tension and seriousness is poison to the raising of Jewish children; Sukkot broadcasts the message that the serious stuff is always followed by good times. Still, could it have hurt to wait a month or two till the next holiday?
The answer has much to do with the High Holy Days and Jewish chutzpah. Some folks have structured entire religions around the theme of forgiveness and redemption. Jews wouldn't settle for that; God had to give them more.
Once forgiven, what do we do for an encore? Sukkot argues that with the negative stuff out of the way, the only possible next step is forging a stronger, warmer relationship with God, with joy and celebration making the shidduch. Here's where the ushpizin help on two levels.
You can't build a relationship with something you cannot fathom and understand. If you want to feel close to God, you have to understand something about Him. At this point, things get a bit complicated.
Judaism, surprisingly, is not particularly top-heavy with theology, even though we taught the notion of a single God to a non-Jewish world that produced plenty of theology, when they weren't too busy burning us. Our home-grown thinkers spent more time telling us what God isn't than what He is.
They were aware of how little man could comprehend about God. Safer to say less than to subject God to an extreme Divine makeover and turn Him into our own image.
Without chapters of ominous-sounding prose, the ushpizin tell us about God. Each one represents a different aspect, a different characteristic about God. In the mystical tradition, each is an archetype of one the sefirot, the kabbalistic protocols through which the Divine will make its way down to what we experience as material reality.
We discover that, at least as observed through human eyes, the absolute unity of God has very different facets. This is more important than is first realized, especially in today's world.
We observe that many of our neighbors get stuck on a single aspect of godliness, often with unhappy consequences. Some groups see God as synonymous with love -- and leave no room for responsibility and justice. Others move in an opposing direction, finding God chiefly a Being of authority and stern justice and demanding submission to the point of sacrificing reason -- and the rest of humanity.
Through the ushpizin, Jews encounter a God who, despite His unity, is thoroughly complex and can only be known to us in very different personalities. Through the Seven Shepherds, as they are called, we discover a hierarchy of values, with chesed, lovingkindness, at the top, but incomplete without reference to inner strength, to the intellectuality of Torah, to the binding of the spiritual to the practical.