Ushpizin: Come on In, by Lori Lefkovitz, Ph.D.

Found In: Sukkot, Welcoming Guests: Ushpizin / Ushpizot

Ushpizin connects us to all our ancestors, real and imagined...

One of the Sukkot rituals that gives me pause is the invitation to the ancestors that we are asked to recite when we sit down to a meal in our shacks in the backyard or on the deck.  There are competing versions of the list of guests whom we invite; they include patriarchs and matriarchs, priests, prophets and/or biblical heroes and heroines in whose company we would like to have dinner in our humble, often childishly-decorated, scantily-roofed, temporary dwellings.  It is a Jewish habit to invite mythic heroes to supper.  Elijah comes to each and every seder; how many Jewish children over the generations have wondered how he manages to handle so much wine or be in so many houses at once (our version of the Santa and milk and cookies logic problem)? 

In the homes to which I am invited on Sukkot, some classically formulaic ushpizin invitation is generally followed by a go around the table in which people are asked to supplement the guest list and bring in their own company.  And there it is: we invite kids who are away at college, parents in Florida, parents no longer living, great-grandparents, Emma Lazarus, Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi. It is a Jewish ritualized version of “if you could have dinner with anyone … ” game and the sukkah (often already crowded with bodies) gets crowded with all manner of spirits.  And then we eat. 

What I love is the reminder that historical time may be linear, but, from a cosmic point of view, there is no timeline.  Just as we are taught that there is no before or after in the Torah, so we know that even if our march of days on the planet is steady on, in the world of our imagination and in the place where God is, it’s all a soup of souls: Dad keeping company with Moses, our grandchildren communing with our great-grandparents.  That, I think, is the lesson of Elijah’s messianic promise on Pesakh and the lesson of the ushpizin on Sukkot: sustaining connections among the mythic and the historical, the long before and the yet to be.  All of which is to say that in the fantasy of grand hospitality, we assume a wide view, a perspective so broad that we must hold our own place lightly and fret less over that which is transient. We must focus more clearly on what and whom we love and admire; who we miss and who we wish for; and the present gifts and inspirations of our lives.  And yet for all of our smallness in the scheme of things, we hold ourselves high, ready in an instant to invite Aaron and Miriam to our supper table, all the while holding an equally honored spot for the daughter off at school. 

Ushpizin is about connection to all the ancestors, real and imagined, and it is about the open table, in an open house—the sukkah—which may be physically fragile, but which goes up year after year, for all these millennia now, all the way back to the days of pilgrimage to the Temple and to the time of the harvest huts in the field.  The solidity of tradition girds each fragile hut just as we are held up by the guests in our sukkah—those who drink the wine and those to whom we make our wine a religious offering, gratefully and playfully.  Come one, come all.

Lori Hope Lefkovitz is the Ruderman Professor of Jewish Studies at Northeastern University, where she is a professor of English and director of the Jewish Studies program.  Her most recent book, In Scripture:  The First Stories of Jewish Sexual Identities--a finalist for the 2010 National Jewish Book Awards--is newly available in paperback.  Lori was the founding director of Kolot: Center for Jewish Women's and Gender Studies and a co-creator of ritualwell.org, on which she served as the inaugural executive editor until last year.