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. We learn that all these exist within God's world but also within each of our individual souls. By meeting the ushpizin, we ultimately meet the selves we were meant to be.
Perhaps most extraordinarily, we learn that the names attached to these different facets of divinity are those of human beings. In Judaism this is not sacrilegious, but essential. Human beings can get things so right that they become the most effective way of conveying to others what God is about.
In the course of many years of sleeping in the sukkah, the experience has never stayed the same. In the earlier years, it was just myself and the older boys, and even then we would lose an occasional candidate to middle-of-the-night second thoughts, resulting in someone wandering indoors to the safer company of his mother. The next major accomplishment was achieving a critical mass for vigorous pillow fights with multiple combatants.
As the number of guests attached to our household grew as well, we got to the point that we had to move tables and chairs from what was one of the larger sukkot in the neighborhood in order to cram in more and more side-by-side mattresses. With some doubling up of the smaller children, I think our record was 12 people, all peaceably snoozing in the presence of the Divine. (There is poetic justice in this for those who have felt guilty for dozing off during the rabbi's sermon. On Sukkot, falling asleep actually becomes a mitzvah!)
By now, we've added the third generation, as the married kids come back with their own children, all of us sharing the experience. Without putting the feelings into words, we have all lived with the sensation of being both vulnerable and invincible. We are out there, exposed, thrust out of the cocoons we build for ourselves.
The ramshackle dwelling in which we spend the days and nights of Sukkot reminds us of the precariousness of Jewish history itself and the improbability of our having survived so long. But we are equally aware that we did survive and that we are protected by something much stronger than walls and roofs.
There is no sleep quite as sound as lying in the embrace of the Creator, feeling far more protected than in the company of Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of Interfaith Affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center and holds the Irmas Adjunct Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School