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Ushpizin

            I know, it sounds like I just sneezed on you, but Ushpizin is an Aramaic word that means “guests.” It refers to a Jewish custom, during the holiday of Sukkot (which we are in now), where we are supposed to not just build a temporary hut/booth outdoors and invite real guests to eat with us, but also invite our ancestors. I knew about the idea of inviting friends to eat in the sukkah, and about our patriarch Abraham’s penchant for inviting dusty strangers into his tent, but I didn’t know about the Ushpizin ceremony until recently.

“Did you say Pee?”

            According to tradition, each night a different exalted guest enters the sukkah, and each of the ushpizin has a unique lesson to teach us based on the Sefirot. The Sefirot, translated as attributes, emanations, or illuminations of God’s infinite light, are seen as the channels through which the Divine creative life force is revealed to humankind (according to Kabbalah). The traditional Ushpizin are meant to represent the “seven shepherds of Israel”: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. Some streams of Judaism also recognize a set of seven female shepherds of Israel, called Ushpizot (using the Modern Hebrew feminine pluralization), or Ushpizata (in reconstructed Aramaic).

            The custom of Ushpizin was established by the Kabbalists in the sixteenth century, and while there’s something a little bit woo-woo about the inviting-dead-people-to-eat-with-you thing, there’s also something comforting about it. It reminds me of how the past Jedi masters returned to support new Jedis in the Star Wars movies, and how Harry Potter got to see his parents, and Dumbledore, when he really needed their support, even though they were gone.

            Especially now, when we can’t really invite our friends and neighbors to eat with us, there’s something magical about being able to invite our ancestors to sit with us instead. But, of course, I would prefer to come up with my own list of guests, instead of being stuck with the biblical characters each night.

            For Day One the divine characteristic is Chesed, usually translated as loving kindness, but generally meaning generosity, compassion, and maybe something like the unconditional love of grandparents. The examples in the Reconstructionist prayer book are Abraham and Sarah, but I would choose my grandfather, for his humor and his good conversation, and most of all for how clearly he loved us. I’d invite him every night, if he would come.

“Can I come too?”

            For Day two, the quality is Gevurah, meaning strength, discipline, and adherence to the law. The examples given are Isaac and Rebecca for some reason, but I think I’d invite Ruth Bader Ginsburg for day two.

            For day three the divine quality is Tiferet, or beauty, harmony, and the ability to see the whole picture. The examples given are Jacob and Leah, which makes no sense to me. Neither of them was known for their beauty, as far as I remember. And Jacob stole his brother’s birthright, while Leah stole her sister’s husband, so, not especially harmonious either. I’d like to pick an artist for day three, but I don’t know which one to choose.

“Oooh! Pick me! Pick me!”

For day fourthe characteristic isNetzach, meaning patience, endurance, persistence, and the willingness to demand justice, even from God. The examples given are Moses and Chanah, and though we all know about Moses persisting in his fight to convince Pharaoh to free the Israelites from bondage, Chanah, or Hannah, is more obscure. She is one of the many women in the bible who struggles with infertility (which was a serious affliction in a society where women were only seen as valuable if they could provide children), and she prays to God to give her a son, promising to dedicate his life to the service of God. She ends up becoming the mother of the prophet Samuel (in the first book of Samuel), and when she hands him over to the high priest she is rewarded with the ability to give birth to five more children. So both Moses and Chanah are good examples of persistence, and worthy of attention, but really, I’d rather have a second visit with Ruth Bader Ginsburg for Netzach, to give me some insight into what it took to fight for women’s rights to be considered valuable whether they were wives and mothers or not. Really, someday, I’d like to be someone else’s idea of Netzach myself.  

For day five the characteristic to celebrate is Hod, or holiness with humility, someone who is powerful but not always announcing her strength. The examples given are Aaron and Miriam, and I think I would like to spend some time with Miriam, if only to get to know her better. She doesn’t get much air time in the Torah.

For day six the divine quality is Tzedek, meaning righteousness and self-sacrifice, and the examples given are Joseph and Esther, though each of them actually received quite a lot of earthly riches for their sacrifices. An alternative for day six is Yesod, meaning “foundation,” with a focus on investing in the foundations of our world and creating connections between people. And that sounds like a parent to me. Like my Mom.

Cricket’s home base – Grandma’s lap.

For day seven, the final divine characteristic is Malchut: sovereignty, leadership and sensitivity to the needs of others. The examples are David and Rachel, and David actually makes sense for kingship, though his sensitivity to the needs of others is questionable. I’d like to meet a leader, or a president, who could lead with sensitivity and compassion for her people. Someone who could give me hope for the future.

There is a lovely idea in the Talmud that all Jews should sit in one sukkah together, living together under a shelter of peace, even if we live across the world from each other, or have different beliefs and different life circumstances. I’d like to think we can expand this concept to all of humanity; that we should act as if we all live under the same roof, because, really, we do.

            There’s a line in the Ushpizin ceremony in the Reconstructionist prayer book that really works for me: May this sukkah, vulnerable to sun and wind and rain, teach us that real peace comes not from an external structure, but from the strength of the community that gathers within.

            May we all feel that strength, within us and between us, even as we live in our own vulnerable bodies, minds, homes, and countries.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Watching Shul

 

Teddy, the miniature poodle, arrived at around three o’clock last Friday afternoon for his visit with us, with a duffle bag full of wee wee pads and special homemade food, and it was immediately clear that he and Cricket should not be left alone without supervision. So we decided to skip Friday night services at synagogue. I rely on those weekly services, though, for some comfort and sense of community, and we took advantage of the new streaming service that gives us access to Friday night services online. As we were searching for the link in a past email, I realized that, finally, this would be a way for Cricket to “go” to shul.

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Teddy, resting on the couch.

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Cricket’s opinion about Teddy resting on the couch.

 

 

Watching services on the computer is not like going in person, but it was at least a connection, except that I kept worrying that the Rabbi and the Cantor could hear me talking through the computer, as if we were on skype. I’m very good about not talking too much during services, but at home, I’m a blabber mouth.

Teddy and Cricket sat with us on the couch, and we sang along with the Friday night prayers on the lap top. To be honest, the dogs didn’t seem especially interested. Cricket was stretched out on the floor at the foot of the couch, and Teddy was still pacing back and forth, to the front door, where he cried for his Mom, and then back to me at the couch, where he sought some comfort and attention, and then back to the door again.

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“Where’s my Mommy?”

There were a bunch of teenagers at services that night, making faces, reaching around their parents’ backs to tap each other on the shoulder, and waving at friends across the aisle. Watching the congregation do the silent standing prayer (The Amidah) was a medley of fidgeting and whispering.

At some point, I started counting the rows and realized that everyone sitting in the first seven rows in the sanctuary was visible on screen. I usually sit at row six or seven, because I assumed that would be far enough back to be invisible. My self-consciousness immediately kicked in and I started wondering if people have been watching me at services, judging what I wear (a sweater and jeans usually), or my side to side shuckling (I have to shift from foot to foot when my back hurts), or noticing when I scratch my head or look for a tissue in my jacket pocket.

So now I know to sit at least eight rows back, no matter how many times the rabbi asks us to move forward.

The big problem with watching the streaming service, though, was that we couldn’t hear the discussion, or any of the poetry readings, because they were done without microphones. I could see the Rabbi doing his hand gestures, putting one idea or anther on a shelf for later, but I had no idea what he was talking about.

We decided to put the computer away for the night at that point, and see if we could distract Teddy from his grief with a walk outside. But even when we were watching Teddy follow Cricket from pee spot to pee spot, meticulously aiming so that his pee fell on the same exact spot Cricket had just peed on, I was still thinking about the streaming service.

 

The discussions are a big part of what I look forward to in Friday nights. The music makes me happy and comfortable, but the discussions force me to look at issues that I don’t ordinarily think about, because the rabbi reads a lot more newspapers than I do. Inevitably, even in the most unfamiliar areas of discussion, I realize that I have something to add. Something that no one else in the room is going to say. And over the years I have built up my willingness to raise my hand and say what I need to say. I’m worried, though, that now that I know I’m being watched on the computer, with no idea who the watchers are, I might be less willing to raise my hand. Even Cricket would be intimidated by that camera over her shoulder. She’s very outspoken at home, and with people she knows, but, as Teddy’s visit has shown us, she can be as uneasy with strangers as I am, and shut herself down in response.

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“What are you talking about, Mommy? I never shut up.”

Don’t worry. I’ll give a full rundown on Teddy’s visit next week, once I’ve had a chance to figure it all out. It will be a relief to be able to go back to shul in person, and sing and be with my community again, and not have to worry that my two favorite dogs are having a stare down over Cricket’s orthopedic doggy bed, or the last piece of chicken liver in Teddy’s bowl. But I will definitely miss Teddy when he leaves, and Cricket will miss his food.

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“Num num num num num….”

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“Chicken livers?”