Sharsheret teaching for Sukkot
The signs of fall are around us. Take a bike ride, go for a walk and you will notice the changes. The leaves are browning and falling, the seed pods are desiccated, the corn stalks hard, brittle husks of their verdant summer fullness. This is the time of year for letting go of the vitality of spring and summer. There is a stripping bare of the lush externalities, a paring down to the essentials. As we all prepare for the colder months ahead, we pull inwards a bit and consider what we want – and need – to hold onto, to reserve for the colder, more spare time of year.
It is moment of flux and transition – for the natural world and for us. And on Sukkot, rather than retreating indoors to hide away from this shift, we step out into it. Rather than hiding from what is changing, we are asked to pull up our chairs to our tables outside and sit with it. We dwell in our sukkot and let these natural processes surround us. This is a tall order. It can be frightening to look at change and embrace it, rather than hiding from it. And so it is poignant that as we step into this time of change, we ask our beloved ancestors to come and sit next to us – to share the warmth and light of their lives.
The Sukkot tradition of Ushpizin/Ushpizot enables our sukkot to become other-worldly vehicles for connecting, across time, with the lives of people who are no longer physically with us. Each night, we invite a different individual to join us in our sukkah. In some traditions, we welcome the forefathers and prominent male leaders: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. In other traditions, we invite female ancestors as well: Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, Leah, Miriam, Abigail, and Esther. And many rich variations have evolved to include invitations to other notable figures, teachers, guides, role models who have passed away.
When we invite them, symbolically, to dine with us in our sukkah, we welcome these individuals’ teachings, their insights, the gifts embodied through the lives they led. And we eat in their presence and drink in their wisdom to nourish us.
Sukkot is a time of harvest, of deep and wide joy. But the real joy isn’t only to be found in pinnacle moments, but also in the transitional moments of becoming. When we think about joy, we might first think of events: weddings, births, celebrations. But Sukkot is orienting us to a different understanding of joy. Joy is, rather, the day to day experiences of greeting the realness of life – the vulnerabilities and rain and the wind and the rhythms of life and death. The mundane of real life.
On Yom Kippur, in Yizkor, we remember those we have lost over the past year and we bring to mind their memories and legacies and love.
Yet on Sukkot, we expand on this practice of memory – we invite the lives, the hearts, the minds of these individuals to come and sit next us in our sukkot. To linger and be present, in their fullness. We consider, as we step into this season of change, whose lives we need next to us right now.
Sukkot opens us to these essential questions:
Whose wisdom do we need at this moment?
Whose life can offer us the strength to step forward with greater strength?
Whose spirit can provide us with deeper insight to face the challenges that greet us in the morning?
A gorgeous text in the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Hayyim says, is discussing what can qualify as a wall for a sukkah:
“One can utilize a friend to be a wall of the sukkah and it will be a kosher sukkah. Even on Yom Tov, so long as that person doesn’t know they are a sukkah wall (which would violate the prohibition of building on Yontif). On the intermediate days, one can know they are the wall, and it is fine.”
How do we think about who we need to serve as our walls? Who holds us up when we are facing the challenges of being human?
May we take this gift of Sukkot and the tradition of ushpizin and ushpizot to consider the sacred guests we want – and need – to welcome into our lives right now, the memories and the nefashot that we can invite to sit next to us and support us with the warmth of their lives.