“A little wind blew into the sukkah, through the frail thin walls, and the thin roof of fir-boughs. The candles sputtered. Everyone was eating heartily the delicious yom-tov supper.
“And I imagined it was not a sukkah but a palace – a great big, brilliantly lit-up palace. And we Jews, the chosen people, the princes, were sitting in the palace and enjoying the pleasures of life.
“‘It is well for you, little Jews,’ thought I; ‘No-one is so well-off as you. No-one else is privileged to sit in such a beautiful palace, covered with green fir-boughs strewn with yellow sand, decorated with the most beautiful tapestries in the world, on the tables the finest suppers, and real yom-tov fish…’.”
Life in the dark, drab surroundings of the shtetl was rarely lit up by shafts of sunlight, but the Jewish child got his adventure and his fun from such things as erecting and dwelling in the sukkah.
Even today, with all the allowances we make for our very different age and the wondrous bounties of nature we see all around us, a sukkah is still a breathtaking experience for the child. There is colour, there is drama, there is beauty.
How about the adult? Can they find relevance in the ancient command?
To find an answer let us turn the clock of Jewish history back by several centuries to the days when the Ari, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria instituted a practice that gave special point to the festival of Sukkot.
It derived from a passage in the Zohar, “When a person sits in the sukkah, the Divine Presence spreads its wings over it and Abraham, David and five tzaddikim come and join them” (Emor 103-4).
The Ari ordained that each day a tzaddik from the Bible was to be symbolically invited to the sukkah. Ulu ushpizin, the invitation went; “Come, sublime and holy guests, fathers, high and holy…”.
On the first day the guest was Abraham, on the second day Isaac, on the third Jacob, and then followed in order Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David.
This colourful custom became widespread and many people prominently display the name of each day’s special guest on the wall or door of the sukkah. One is soon convinced that the distinguished guest is actually there in person at the sukkah table.
Meal-table hospitality has always been a characteristic Jewish virtue, not just to give a hungry person a meal, though this was and remains a great and praiseworthy act. It was an opportunity also to exercise the now declining art of conversation, and for the host family to be intellectually stimulated by what the guest had to say.
The meal table thus became a centre of Torah. It played a role not only in the houses of the rich or learned but everywhere that there was a self-respecting ba’al habayit who followed the dictum in Pir’kei Avot, “If three people have eaten at a table and spoken words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten at the table of the Almighty Himself.”
What was in the minds of the great mystic to whom we owe the notion of Ushpizin, the sukkah guests, if not the thought, “Who better than the great men of the Bible to be present in spirit in the sukkah and to bless the occasion with words of Torah?” And what perceptive words of Torah, what relevant message for Sukkot, is conveyed by their presence?
Can we reconstruct their Divrei Torah?
The first day’s guest is Abraham, the pioneer of faith who saw God in the panorama of nature and the elements.
What Abraham has to say must be that a colourful festival of nature and harvest-time can spark a religious awakening, a sense of the presence of God and of wonder at the beauty of His creation – a creation which remains majestic despite all man’s furious attempts to injure, uproot and destroy it…
Isaac is the guest on the second day. He is no pioneer, no blazer of new trails. Even when he looks for water, he goes back and digs again the old wells which his father’s servants had dug.
His message for Sukkot is surely that the old paths must not be rejected simply because they are old, old traditions such as the sukkah must not be despised simply because of their antiquity, and before a new age sweeps old habits and ways aside, it must make sure it has something better to put in their place…
For Jacob, the guest on the third day, life has been a struggle.
The sukkah too is at the mercy of the elements. Jacob never gave in to fear (im yihyeh Elokim immadi, he says, setting off on his journey: “Let God be with me, and I will be safe!”); so too, he reminds us, the Israelites survived in the unfriendly wilderness because God was with them.
Even in an age with menaces more fierce than any he knew, the only real security is faith in God, who does not abandon His world or His creatures…
After Jacob comes Joseph, the supplier of corn in time of famine.
Seeing how prosperous and well-fed his yom-tov hosts appear, he urges us all to share our means and our meals with others.
Half the world’s population is hungry; for millions of people every home is a sukkah, every day is a Yom Kippur. Symbolically our sukkah table should be shared with guests of every race and people…
On the fifth day the guest is Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher, of whom it is said, Ve’ha’ish Moshe anav me’od, “The man Moses was very humble”. He is Moses the meek, but there are times when he has to be Moses the firm, Moshe ha’ish.
Who better to explain that a sukkah must not be too high – in order to teach humility, for a person should never be high and mighty; nor too low, just as a human being must not be too self-effacing and sell himself too cheaply…
Aaron, the guest for the sixth day, is a peacemaker who loves peace and pursues peace.
He reminds us how often we use the term sukkah in connection with peace, how often we pray that God spread over us the tabernacle of peace.
He pleads with every human group and every human individual to work to bring every other person and group under the tabernacle of peace so that all mankind may one day sit together at one table in amity and understanding…
On the seventh day, we welcome David, the sweet singer.
His is a message of confidence. He is moved to find that we have been saying his Psalm 27, L’David Ori, night and morning since the beginning of Elul. He recalls the words of this Psalm: Ki yitz’p’neni besukkoh, “He will conceal me in the shelter of His tabernacle”.
He is certain that our loving observance of this festival, our faithful attention to its traditions, and the listening ear we have turned to the wisdom of each of our guests, will find Divine acceptance, and God will bless us and keep us safe…
There is a most beautiful prayer said on entering the sukkah: “May it be Your will, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, to cause Your Divine spirit to dwell in our midst. O spread over us the tabernacle of peace, and encircle us with Your majestic glory, holy and pure”.
Now that we know, thanks to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David, what this festival stands for and has to say, may we merit the fulfilment of this prayer and be blessed with a Chag Same’ach.