Rabbi Lief’s Message: October 2016

The Open Sukkah

At a big dinner party, the host parents turned to their five year old son and asked him to offer a prayer over the meal.  The boy was unsure what to do, so the mother encouraged him, “Just say what Mommy always says before we eat.”  The boy smiled and nodded, closed his eyes and said, “Dear God, why did I invite all these annoying people to dinner?”

Our tradition takes a slightly different view on welcoming guests.  Genesis talks of Abraham, still recuperating from his own circumcision, running to bring food and drink to passing strangers.  The midrashic commentaries on the passage even suggest that he pitched his tent at the intersection of two roads so that all travelers would have to stop and be cared for by him.

This month we take the welcoming of guests to an even higher level of action.  In addition to our High Holy Days worship, where all are welcome to take a spiritual inventory for the year ahead, the festival of Sukkot that follows teaches that we cannot give thanks for the blessings of food and shelter without sharing them with others.  In Leviticus 23 and again in Deuteronomy 16 we are told that we must rejoice and be happy and then share our blessings by eating with slaves, strangers, orphans, widows, and anyone who might otherwise go without.  Just as our joy is lessened at Passover when we think of those who are not yet free, so too our joy is actually enabled at Sukkot by empowering the disadvantaged.

There is a kabalistic concept, expounded upon in the medieval mystical text the Zohar, called “ushpizin,” from the Aramaic word for “guests,” suggesting that spiritual guests from Jewish history visit our sukkah during the holiday, but only if we invite them in.  While the mystics like to suggest that their presence enables us to connect with the Divine on differing levels on each night of the festival, I think the idea itself raises an important modern question.  The Ushpizin only visit if we invite them in, only if we extend our celebration beyond ourselves and our immediate circle of family and friends.  Do we?  Do we ever reach out farther?  Would we invite a total stranger to dine with us on the holiday?  The sukkah has to have one open side that cannot be closed; do we open our doors, let alone our hearts and minds, to anything or anyone not already known?  In this era of media driven fear, we lock our doors and add extra layers of security to keep out those whom we suspect might try to hurt us.  What if we’re also, inadvertently, keeping out those who might help us, those who might inspire us, those who might enable us to find something better in ourselves by reaching out to them?

This, then, is our Sukkot dilemma.  Moses Maimonides taught that one cannot build a sukkah in a closed and locked courtyard.  (Hilchot Shevitat Yom Tov 6:16)  As we give thanks this Sukkot for all that we have: food, shelter, safety, and friendship, let us remember that true gratitude and appreciation demands that we share these gifts with those whose lives lack such blessings.  This Fall, may the lesson of Sukkot guide us, through Thanksgiving and beyond, to open our doors and open our minds, to open our homes and to open our hearts, for only when they are open to what others might bring, can they be filled.  Becca, Leah, Ellie and I wish you a very filling fall festival season, and a New Year of openness and blessings ahead.