Ushpizin

Think back to the last time you invited someone into your home. What prompted you to engage in this act of hachnasat orchim, of welcoming guests?  How did the person react upon being invited? How was s/he treated as a guest in your home?

Hachnasat Orchim is a commandment which dates back to the time of Abraham, when he invited the 3 men into his tent and went far out of his way to make them feel welcome, giving them water to wash their feet and food to satiate their appetites from the long journey. According to Rashi, the original act of welcoming was actually at the beginning of that chapter, when God visited Abraham 3 days after his circumcision in the guise of these 3 men/angels. The men were welcomed and were treated with great hospitality in making their visit. Welcoming guests is so essential that it states in the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat Page 127a that one receives the Shechinah, God’s presence, upon engaging in it.

Often we think of welcoming guests as connected to Passover, when we proclaim “let all who are hungry come and eat!” However, it is equally important to welcome guests for Sukkot. The Zohar, a 12th century Kabbalistic work, teaches that on each of the 7 days of Sukkot we welcome one of the Ushpizin, our revered ancestors. We welcome Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moshe, Aaron and David. However, it’s not merely a matter of inviting our biblical ancestors and saying a special formula of welcome; rather, it is a great mitzvah to invite “modern day Ushpizin” into our Sukkah. Maimonides, a 13th century Spanish and Egyptian commentator, puts it well when he states in his Mishneh Torah (Laws of the Festivals 6:18) that anyone who sits comfortably with his family within his own walls and does not share with the poor is performing a mitzvah not for joy but for the stomach. True joy is welcoming others into one’s Sukkah, sharing with them our most joyous holiday, our z’man simhateinu.

When thinking about Ushpizin, I cannot help but recall the 2005 film by the same name. Moshe and Malli are a Bratzlov Hasidic couple who cannot afford their bills, much less to prepare for Sukkot. Moshe, however, is joyous, believing that God will provide. After all, Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlov stated that difficult times are God testing one’s faith. Out of the blue, the couple receives an envelope containing $1000, and they are overjoyed. Immediately, Moshe uses part of that money to buy an etrog for 1000 shekels, roughly one-quarter of the money. His first thought is not paying bills or putting into savings-even buying something nice for his wife. Rather, Moshe’s initial instinct is to engage in a hiddur mitzvah, a beautification of a commandment by getting the most elegant etrog for the 7 days of Sukkot. Moshe also joyously welcomes two escaped prison convicts as ushpizin, who know him from childhood. He keeps them in his home throughout the holiday of Sukkot even though they are interfering with his life and his relationship with his wife Malli.

I believe there is a key lesson that can be learned from this film and from the concept of Ushpizin: the importance of proactively inviting guests not out of obligation but rather out of sheer joy and excitement. In the reading for Shemini Atzeret it says that we should be only joyous on Sukkot, and we know that true joy is shared joy.

The Babylonian Talmud Tractate Hagigah 27a affirms this point. Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish, commentators in the 2nd century Palestinian Talmud, state that at the time of the Temple the sacrifices on the altar atoned for a person. Now that the Temple has been destroyed a person’s table enacts atonement for him. What does this mean? Rashi states that it is about hachnasat orchim, the welcoming of guests to one’s table.

For Karina and me, the welcoming of guests truly occurred when we came to Jericho and were hosted by 14 households. Now it is Karina and my turn to invite everyone to our home tomorrow afternoon for our Sukkot Open House from 2:00-4:00 pm. I hope you will join us as our Ushpizin and share in the joy of Sukkot. Karina and I wish everyone a Hag Sukkot Sameach and enjoyment of z’man simhateinu, this time of true joy for our people.

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