Sukkot, Hospitality, and the Strangeness of the End of the Holidays

 

A Blog Post Rabbi Dov Gartenberg for the New Faces Blog

Completed on Friday, October 28, 2016/26 Tishrei, 5777

I love the festival for Sukkot for many reasons. I love the strangeness of building a temporary structure. I love the often-amusing annual effort to procure the Sechach-the cutoff branches needed to cover the Sukkah. I love sitting in a sukkah (on a dry day) with a coat on while enjoying the fall colors enveloping me. I love the special rain roof-(called a schlock) that I have to rig up for the Sukkot I have built in Alaska and Washington. I love the antiquity of the four species and the rain inducing shaking and circling we do with them. I love the reading of Kohelet-Ecclesiastes that we read in the synagogue.

The sense of roots that permeates this festival moves me deeply. This festival is so detached from the regular pace and homogenizing context of our lives. As I get older I love Sukkot more and more. While Sukkot is a wonderful holiday for children and for families, I find it is very much compelling festival as I move through my 60s and beyond.

But what I love more than anything on Sukkot is the ritual of Ushpizim, the invitation to ancient guests to sit in the Sukkah with us. Not only is Sukkot about physical hospitality, it is also about spiritual hospitality. The ritual of Ushpizin has us invite our ancestors into the Sukkah. What the ritual signifies is that hospitality helps us to transcend our limited lifespan. On Sukkot we are invited to imagine knowing and relating to our long dead ancestors. We express our desire to share a meal with them, talk to them about their lives, their worries, their satisfactions, and their aspirations. We may even crack a joke with them or tell a story.

This is the power of hospitality. It takes something that is remote, and brings it close. The strange act of inviting the forefathers and the foremothers into the Sukkah is making the distant, the ancient, the arcane past close and imaginable. So too with those strangers who live in the same arena of our lives. Their distance is not over generations, but rather of physical proximity, cultural difference, class status, or other outcomes of human complexity. The act of hospitality is the attempt to reduce alienation from others.

A number of social scientists have argued that human beings can only make as much as 154 friends or significant relationships.   The idea is that human groups have an upper limit of intimacy. If this is true, then hospitality is not so much about making friends, but also connecting to others outside our 154-person network. While we cannot befriend the whole world, we need to be connected to others who are different than us. This is the secret of the practice of hospitality.

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I found this striking poem in the new siddur about this period immediately after the end of the fall Festivals. Lev Shalem on page 368

The Journey On by Tamara Cohen

The s’khakh on my sukkah

is browning,

the gourds are growing

soft from the rain

 

Soon it will be time to take

down the sukkah:

unscrew the screws,

unhinge the walls.

 

Soon these days of celebra-

tion will end

and i will drag the poles

back to the garage.

 

I want a prayer for this:

the courage to take down

what we erect,

the willingness to let the

temporary be temporary.

 

Because it is,

because the fullness of the

moon is no longer

but will be again.

 

We have been schooled

once more in the fragility

of shelter,

in the wisdom of walls and

the welcoming of guests,

in the joy of song and soup

shared outdoors.

 

Let us turn to Heshvan:

 

See how the etrog can

become a spicebox,

each clove piercing the

yellow skin,

a teacher for the year

ahead.

 

What was holy can be holy

again.

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