Who showed up at your sukkah?

by | Sep 30, 2013 | Torah Thought

We have a nice Sukkot holiday tradition in Judaism, the custom of symbolically inviting seven honored guests, one for each night of the holiday. This tradition is known as “ushpizin,” the Aramaic word for “guests.”

Today, in creative Jewish circles, we are witnessing some interesting developments of the idea. For example, the women’s group at Temple Israel had a Saturday night havdalah service and invited the “ushpizot,” famous women from our biblical tradition, from Sarah through Esther.

I had a good deal of intellectual enjoyment from “inviting” seven guests from our tradition, in the form of bringing to the sukkah books written by Jewish men and women of letters, and reading their words, one for each day. Here was my invite list:

The First Day—Bahya ibn Paquda. This sensitive Sepharadi philosopher wrote one of the enduring classics of our tradition, Chovot Ha-Levavot, “The Duties of the Heart.” That is the first work in Jewish literature to categorize the interior, psychological states of being and to describe how God wants us to live within the covenant, both with our limbs and with our feelings.

The Second Day—I stayed Sephardic, but switched from philosophy to poetry, reading the moving religious poems anthologized in Raymond Scheindlin’s The Gazelle: Medieval Hebrew Poems on God, Israel and the Soul. My favorite is this gem of a miniature by Judah HaLevi: “To You the stars of morning sing/ Because their lights from Your light springs. Like them the angels on their watches/ Night and day extol their King. Your holy people follows them/ Each dawn their songs from Your house rings.” The poem perfectly fit the hour—reading it with the first light of dawn.

The Third Day—Turning to more modern thought, I refamiliarized myself with Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem. In the midst of the horrible headlines of the day—Shiite and Sunni Muslims bombing each others’ mosques, militants denying basic rights to those who differ from themselves in religion, Egyptian Coptic Christians fleeing their villages because of unchecked violence—Mendelssohn’s plea for religious tolerance seems more urgent than ever. He argued in a way that the framers of our own Constitution would have agreed with: We ask the state to protect our bodies and property, so we give it coercive police powers. But the “church” is meant only to help us achieve our spiritual goals, not our political ones, so churches ought not to have police powers over people. This is where modern Jewish history found its first theoretical expression, and it is still relevant today.

The Fourth Day—Turning from Men of the Enlightenment to women, living at nearly the same time, but in a very different society, I delved into the T’khines literature, prayers originally written in Yiddish by Ashkenazic women. My “tour guide” was the contemporary scholar Chava Weissler, whose Voices of the Matriarchs: Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Women opens a window into the souls of our fore-mothers.

The Fifth Day—What about the American Jewish condition? Today’s guest was Israel Friedlaender, one of the great scholars of the early 20th century, a man whose life was tragically cut short when he was murdered while on an errand of mercy in the Ukraine. His Past and Present: Selected Essays are among the most trenchant observations of Jewish life and thought, from biblical times until very nearly our own.

The Sixth Day—Contemporary Authors! The Irrepressible and life-affirming voice of Isaac Bashevis Singer should often be ringing in our ears. So many of his stories and novels celebrate the Yiddish culture of a now-vanished, but so recent world. Today’s companions were the short stories in the collection, The Spinoza of Market Street, a loving, gently critical look at the very human society that our grandparents created, where God’s word and all-too human ears were in proximity.

The Seventh Day—Looking to tomorrow. One of the most promising of young Jewish authors today is Dara Horn, a former Hebrew High School student of mine at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Prozdor school. Her 2009 novel, All Other Nights, is a “Slam-Bang! Superb!” telling of a Passover story set in the Civil War, whose 150th anniversary we are now commemorating. What a fine way to connect art, religion and history, and all in the beautiful, autumnal weather of the sukkah.

These choices are personal, not prescriptive. Next year, plan your own sukkah reading, and enjoy getting close to our Jewish tradtion, even while you are close to nature.

—Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel