A Modern Twist on Ushpizin (Welcoming Guests)

I love the holiday of Sukkot. I have fond memories of building a sukkah with my family and using cornstalks for the roof of this temporary hut built on our back porch. Every year, I recreate this tradition with my own kids. Our sukkah may be a little fancier than what I grew up with. We add new decorations every year but place the new ones side by side with the drawings and blessings my kids created over the years. There is something beautiful in this ritual that reminds us both of the fragility of life and the blessings we enjoy.

As a child, I don’t think I ever heard the word ushpizin (welcoming guests). It wasn’t a part of my young Jewish vocabulary, but as an adult, I have come to truly embrace this custom. Ushpizin is the Aramaic word for “guests”. Judaism teaches us that we can best fulfill the mitzvot (commandments) of Sukkot by sharing our bounty with others. We are taught to open our homes to the poor and the needy, inviting them into our sukkot along with symbolically welcoming our biblical ancestors through the practice of ushpizin. Our biblical ancestors represent positive character traits that we learn from and strive to emulate.

I’ve begun to think of ushpizin in a new light, thanks to my jHUB colleague, Rabbi Chase Foster. He has created a modern twist on this custom by welcoming people into the sukkah to share their experiences living Jewish values. Each day of the holiday, these guest interviews will be posted on our jHUB Facebook page.

At this time when our country feels broken, when we have leaders filled with vitriol who foment hate and divisiveness and who refuse to reject antisemitism, racism, and other forms of bigotry, this is an answer. We can welcome guests into our sukkah as a way to open our hearts and minds to others. As Bryan Stevenson says in his book Just Mercy, it is essential that we “get proximate” to people who may not look like us, live like us, or share the same beliefs. Only when we get proximate will we be able to understand the lessons our neighbors can teach us. Only by getting proximate will we begin to rid ourselves of judgments, assumptions, and biases.

Our country is at a liminal moment. We can dig in our heels, remain divided, and continue to see our country struggle in so many ways, or we can open ourselves to the wisdom and experiences of others allowing ourselves to become vulnerable and gain new awareness and insights.

May this truly be a Chag Sukkot Sameach, a joyous holiday of Sukkot filled with gratitude, compassion, learning, integrity, and unity.

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