Tuesday, June 18, 2024 -
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Guests across the generations

One of the more fond and beloved customs of Sukkot is ushpizin.

Ushpizin means guests in Aramaic. Each night of Sukkot, as we stand at the threshold of the thatched sukkah, we formally invite the spirit or soul of one of our ancestors, the seven shepherds of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David.

Each evening come dinner time, prior to entering the sukkah for that evening’s holiday meal, we recite a formal invitation to one of these spiritual ancestors of ours.

Each of these distinguished guests grace our table, with the dominant energy or quality of his teaching and personality permeating the spirit of the sukkah on that particular day.

I have always enjoyed this beautiful custom. It affords a time to think of important people from our past and actually include them in our holiday meal, feeling their impact and presence in our lives.

These honored guests are present with us throughout the holiday. Each holy ancestor represents a different time, a particular generation.

The power of the ushpizin exceeds the individual greatness of each forefather, as towering as each one was. It is the cumulative greatness, the power of the glue of tradition and connection — of passing the torch — that binds them as a unit. Their standing as a group of Jewish leaders is greater than the sum of their parts.

The idea of Judaism being passed down from one brave and spiritual leader to another — across the generations — emanates from this group of great people.

Each day of Sukkot is endowed with a specific dimension of each of these transcendent ancestors, and  it is the power of the dynasty, the collective, that resonates as well.

It is a cumulative holiness wrapped around us, as we bask in the radiance of the Shechinah, the Divine presence, under a canopy of stars and by the shade of the sukkah.

By welcoming and inviting these ancestors to join us, all the generations come together on  this holiday. The living and the dead, the past and the present — we meld into one. After the book of yizkor is closed in shul on the previous Yom Kippur, it is precisely on this holiday, this time of rejoicing, that we continue to evoke the people from our past and celebrate with them.

If there is someone whom you wish to “invite” into your life on Sukkot,  I think you can have your personal ushpizin. You evoke the memory or articulate an invitation for their presence to flank your sukkah. Perhaps it is a scholar, a humanitarian, a relative.

To me, the idea of ushpizin is about inviting souls as guests, and all of us sitting together, all generations, whether expected guests or possibly unexpected ones as well. We all have the expected visitors of our lives, and the unexpected visitors, who enter our lives in different forms. Ushpizin can make us consider: How will we invite the unexpected as guests into our lives?

Is there a certain ancestor you would like to include and invite to your sukkah? To feel like you have just one more day with him or her — even if just in spirit?

Sukkot is the time for us all to be together, for the precious people from our past to be here with us in the present. A great-grandmother you never knew, a Zadie whom you loved, or perhaps, tragically, a young relative who passed on too early whom you just miss so dearly.

As much as they are always in your thoughts, now is the time to invite them back into your life in a formal and specific way. In some mystical way, it is now, on Sukkot, that you can still have one more day with that special someone you miss. In your life. In your heart. In your sukkah.

Tehilla Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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