Food. Friends. Family. These seem to be the ingredients of a joyous holiday celebration. Like so many of the Jewish holidays, Sukkot epitomizes the value of hakhnasat orchim (the welcoming of visitors). Various programs encourage hospitality in the sukkah. Even the mystics have a say in the practice of ushpizin, where those who live in the past are invited into the present. Some even say that the sukkah itself helps to concentrate their spiritual energy. As a result, when we invite them into our midst, we get the opportunity to share in the energy, as well.
Perhaps the practice of ushpizin is also our way of acknowledging the role that our ancestors continue to play in our lives and our hope that the values that they taught and represented continue to live on through the lives we lead. Just as the Talmud suggests that when we teach something that we learned from someone else (b’shem amro), we imagine his/her face in front of us, the ancestors who taught us certain important values are with us as we act on those values and welcome the strangers—the visitors—in our community.
To the traditional characters of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David (which emerge from the Zohar text [5:103b]), feminists have added additional visitors such as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Perhaps we can add to the list: Moses’ wife Zipporah (“the local minister’s daughter”); Ruth (the Moabite woman who cast her lot with the Jewish people); and Esther (whose interfaith marriage led to the saving of the Jewish community of ancient Persia). And don’t forget Asnat, Joseph’s Egyptian wife whose children Efraim and Manasseh were accepted by their grandfather Jacob as his own and in whose names Jewish boys are blessed by their parents each Shabbat.
Because the Torah portion designated for Sukkot this Shabbat comes from Leviticus, we are forced to wade through sacrificial details. We are taught that the ancient sacrificial system was designed to bring us closer to Gd. And although the system doesn’t exist any longer, our longing to come closer to Gd is not diminished. In this Torah portion, various details concerning the priest’s role and the consecrated sacrifice are described. In Lev. 22:18, Gd directs Moses and acknowledges the role of the stranger in our midst who brings a sacrifice, who too wants to develop a relationship with Gd as a member of the ancient Israelite community. Just as the community has made room for the stranger in its midst, the priest must accommodate the stranger’s sacrifice as well. It is no less acceptable to Gd.
So if these are all of our models, and these are the values that they represent, then we need to make sure that one thing is clear: All are welcome to dwell in the sukkah, whether it represents the thatched hut in our backyards or the entire Jewish community.