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Welcoming Guests, Welcoming Strangers

The holiday of Sukkot is an agricultural festival. In ancient times we built temporary shelters so that we could spend our days out in the field harvesting the Fall crops. The Torah also suggests that we lived in these booths during our wanderings in the wilderness and they therefore remind us of our journey from freedom (Passover) to revelation (Shavuot). Rabbi Akiva believed that these temporary booths symbolized God’s protective shelter over us.

For one week we are commanded to eat, and even sleep, in the sukkah. The sukkah should never be built so well that it keeps out rain. In fact, one is supposed to be able to see the stars through its roof. The sukkah’s temporary quality reminds us of the fragility of our lives. Spending time in the sukkah helps to reconnect us to nature. Sleeping in the sukkah teaching us gratitude for the beautiful homes in which we live.

We are to invite guests into our sukkah and share our meals with them. The tradition suggests that everyone who is fortunate enough to celebrate Sukkot should invite at least one poor person to join them in their sukkah. Another tradition counsels us to invite ushpizin, imaginary, and legendary, guests. We invite Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. And I would add, Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, Leah, Miriam, Abigail, and Esther. On each of the holiday’s seven days, we single out a different Jewish hero.

The prayerbook suggests we say, “I invite to my meal the exalted guests, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. May it please you, Abraham, my exalted guest, that all the other exalted guests dwell with me and with you: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David.”

It is an interesting custom that reminds us of the importance of welcoming guests. Our homes, and our hearts, must always be open others. According to the tradition, Abraham and Sarah were models of how we are to welcome strangers. I cannot help but think of their example as I watch, once again and yet again, images of people struggling to enter our country’s borders. I think of my great grandparents who I never met and who brought their children, and my grandparents, to this nation. Are we living up to our tradition’s ideal?

I wonder if I should imagine welcoming my own legendary guests as this year’s ushpizin. If they were to sit in my sukkah and share in the bounty that I take for granted, I would ask them many questions. I would want to ask them why they risked everything to come to these United States. I know bits and pieces of their stories. I know the legends. There is so much I do not know. There is so much more I need to know.

I would want to ask my honored ushpizin, did they feel welcome when they first arrived? Why did they leave Russia? Were their days when they regretted their decision to come here? What did they miss most of the old world? Was America everything they dreamed it would be?

As I look up through the sukkah’s roof at heaven’s stars, I imagine Abraham and Sarah seeing these same stars and dreaming that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the nighttime sky. I imagine their hopes for what blessings their people might bring to the world.

I imagine my great grandparents Abraham and Sarah Greenberg dreaming that their descendants would find better lives for themselves in what was to them, this foreign land.

I wonder if my reality lives up to their dreams. I wish to welcome these exalted guests into my sukkah and discover the answers to my questions. I wish to find renewed strength and live up to Abraham and Sarah’s hopes and dreams.