Sukkot Reminds Us to Treat All Visitors as Honored Guests

This blog post was reprinted with permission from j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California

Welcome at the doorI recently visited a San Francisco synagogue for the first time. I rang the bell and a teenage girl came to let me in.  She wasn’t working there; she was just doing her homework. She welcomed me with a warm smile and asked if she could help me. We chatted about her schoolwork and life at the synagogue, and then the rabbi came running out to meet me. He was in the middle of Bar Mitzvah lessons and apologized for his delay in welcoming me. He didn’t know I was a rabbi or what I was doing there; it appeared that this is how he welcomed anyone walking in the door. I explained that I was fine—just a bit early for a meeting. The night went on in this fashion. I have to admit that I was a bit flabbergasted. I had to wonder, why shouldn’t every encounter be this way?

What came to my mind that night is that this synagogue clearly practices and teaches what some have recently been calling audacious or radical hospitality. They went out of their way to make sure I was treated like an honored guest. This spirit of embrace is ingrained in their culture to the extent that even a teenager is among the initiated! We all know people who seem to go far above and beyond what might be considered polite or inclusive. And we know how encountering such an individual has the power to change our outlook. Those of us who work for Jewish organizations struggle to figure out how our institutions can reflect this value. We may have the best programs, the most beautiful services, the best school. But at the end of the day, what supersedes everything else is whether or not people feel in each and every personal encounter that they matter.

Sukkot is the Jewish season for nurturing this quality of openness in ourselves and our institutions. We move out of our homes into huts, and we invite people to join us in these temporary, yet holy spaces. The holiday goes by many names: the Feast of Booths, the Festival of Ingathering, and He-Chag (the holiday). But if we stress the injunction to welcome those in need into our sukkahs, we could also name it the Festival of Hospitality.

In a few weeks, we will read in the Torah about Abraham and Sarah in another kind of shelter, their tent in Mamre [Gen.18]. Three strangers passed through, and amidst a culture in which a stranger could be a major threat, they invited them in. They rushed to greet them, washed their feet, and fed them. The strangers turned out to be angels telling Sarah of her pregnancy. But the beauty of the story is that Sarah and Abraham had no idea that their visitors were divine guests. This is how they treated everyone they met. A midrash on the apocryphal book of Jubilees makes this connection between the holiday of Sukkot and Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality clear. It tells us that part of their preparations for their holy guests was, in fact, building the first sukkah to shelter them.

What would the world look like if we treated everyone we encountered as worthy of our attention? What would our Jewish communities look like if every person who walked through a door were greeted like Abraham and Sarah’s guests? What would the world look like if we treated even people we don’t know across the globe with that degree of humanity?

Sukkot is the holiday of the open tent. It seems it should be the most accessible holiday, but unfortunately it is also one of the harder holidays to celebrate. Not everyone has the space or strength to build a sukkah. If you are fortunate enough to have one, imitate Abraham and Sarah during the remaining days of the holiday and welcome someone who has never been to a sukkah or doesn’t think he knows enough about Judaism to partake. There is a kabbalistic custom to invite ushpizin, ancestral, transcendent guests, into the sukkah.  But even more important is filling your sukkah with real, flesh-and-blood visitors. This Sukkot, may we go above and beyond to make people feel like the divine guests that they are—when they enter our institutions, our work, our homes and our tents.

My Dream Guest List for Sukkot

I love the holiday of Sukkot! As a congregational rabbi, Sukkot—which comes just five days after Yom Kippur—offers me a welcome break after the pressure of High Holy Day sermons.  Plus, Sukkot is a lot of fun. I always have a great time putting up our Sukkah in our backyard in the days following Yom Kippur and then decorating it with my kids.

And I love inviting guests to our Sukkah—both real guests as well as ushpizin. Ushpizin (Aramaic for “guests”) are Biblical guests that are symbolically “invited” into a Sukkah, a different one each night of the festival. The traditional list of ushpizin includes Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. (Other lists include the four matriarchs—Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah—and other Biblical heroines.) There is a ritual formula for “welcoming” the ushpizin and it is traditional to learn about and discuss the Biblical guest of the evening.

SukkahMany people expand on the custom of welcoming ushpizin and use Sukkot as a time to discuss who they would like to welcome as guests: people who have been part of their own lives or people they have never met, living or deceased.

This year as I prepare for Sukkot I have been thinking about who I would want to invite as ushpizin—that is, who I would want to invite for dinner in my Sukkah. As the Director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, I have been thinking in particular about people in interfaith relationships and people with relatives in interfaith relationships (individuals from Biblical times as well as groups of people from modern times) that I would like to have as ushpizin. Here is my list:

1. Tziporah: Tziporah, who we read about in the Book of Exodus in the Bible, was a daughter of a Midianite priest. Tziporah married Moses and was the mother of his two sons. I would ask Tziporah what it was like, as a non-Israelite, being married to a man who went on to become the leader of the Israelites. When she first met Moses she thought he was Egyptian since he had come to Midian from Egypt, where he had been raised in the Pharaoh’s palace as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter and from where he had fled when it was discovered that he had killed an Egyptian taskmaster. What did she think of this man, quite possibly the first person she had ever met who was not from her own people? Was she concerned when she married him that he was not a Midianite? What was it like in her day to be married to someone from a different culture and who worshipped a different god? Did they ever discuss their different backgrounds and beliefs?

2. Ruth: Ruth, whose story we read in the Biblical Book of Ruth, is often viewed as the first Jew-by-choice since she accepted the God of the Israelites as her God and the Israelite people as her people. In the Book of Ruth, Ruth said to her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16)

I would ask Ruth why she, a Moabite woman, married an Israelite man in the first place. Then, after her husband (Naomi’s son) had died, why did she choose to leave her homeland of Moab to go to Israel with Naomi? What did it feel like for Ruth to leave behind everything that was familiar to her and did she miss her family when she left? What was it like to give up the beliefs and ways of her people? What was it about the people of Israel and the God of Israel that drew her to them? When she raised the twin sons that she had with Boaz (a relative of her deceased husband, as was instructed by the laws of levirate marriage), even though they were Israelite, did she teach them anything about Moabite culture or tell them about her Moabite family?

3. Parents who did not grow up Jewish who are actively involved in raising Jewish children (whether or not they have chosen to become Jewish themselves): I know many parents who grew up practicing other religions (some of whom still practice them, others who do not) who are raising their children as Jews. If I had such a group in my Sukkah, I would ask them to discuss the sacrifices they have made by committing to raise their children in a faith tradition different from the one in which they grew up. How did they come to the conclusion that they wanted to raise their children as Jews? What are the challenges they have faced, as well as the rewards? I would thank them for their commitment to the future of Judaism.

4. Jewish parents whose children are in interfaith relationships: I would like these Jewish parents to be able to have an honest conversation about how they feel about their children being seriously involved with someone who is not Jewish. Surely some would feel disappointed—perhaps even hurt or rejected—and their feelings should not be ignored. Hopefully, though, they would understand that it is their adult child’s choice who they are going to date and/or marry and they would respect their child’s decision. I would encourage all of them to accept their children’s partners and welcome them into their family.

5. Rabbis and cantors who officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies: I would ask each clergy person to share his or her own reasons for officiating at interfaith weddings. There are many clergy, like myself, who did not officiate at interfaith weddings immediately following ordination, but rather began to do so after some time for a variety of reasons. (Read why I now officiate at interfaith weddings.) I think it would be fascinating to hear about my colleagues’ personal journeys and to hear from each of them the most rewarding, as well as the most challenging experiences they have had in working with interfaith couples.

6. Children growing up in interfaith households: I would love to invite a group of children of all different ages who are currently growing up in interfaith households. I would ask them what they find to be the most rewarding and what they find to be the most challenging about growing up as part of an interfaith family. In what ways, if any, do they find that having a parent who is not Jewish impacts their Jewish identity?

7. Dating, engaged and newly married interfaith couples: I would begin by asking them to share their experiences as interfaith couples. What are the rewards and what are the challenges? Have they discussed how they are going to raise children if they have them? How can they make Jewish choices while honoring the traditions of both partners? Can they discuss these issues with their parents?

Okay, I’ll admit it: While it is true that I would love to have a group of interfaith couples in my Sukkah, I’m also plugging InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia’s upcoming Love and Religion workshop that starts in October. If you and your partner or a couple you know may be interested in discussing questions such as these, then you should find out about Love and Religion here.

Chag Sameach (happy holiday)!  May this Sukkot be one in which we can all be welcoming and one in which we all feel welcomed!

What about you? Who are your dream ushpizin? If you could spend an evening with any person or group of people (real or fictional, living or deceased), who would you choose? What would you want to talk about?