Sukkahs are for sleeping

We were all refugees from New York, where shivering in the sukkah made global warming seem like an attractive alternative.

Taking up residence in California conferred some advantages — and responsibilities. We were intent on doing what our Ashkenazi forebearers, who lived in inhospitably cold climates, could not do.

We were intent on doing Sukkot the way the Talmud prescribes, meaning 24/7, including spending nights there.

In the days before our property was secured with gates and fences, camping out was somewhat frightful to some of the more timid children, until they hit on a solution.

“Do you think we could have some extra ushpizin in the sukkah?”

Ushpizin are the traditional visitors on Sukkot, the spirits of seven biblical figures — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David — each of whom joins us on a different day of the holiday, according to the Jewish mystical tradition. Shuli Rand brought them to the attention of the non-Jewish world with his delightful movie by the same name.

I was puzzled. Why were the kids trying to tamper with tradition?

“Just whom would you like us to invite, besides the regulars?” I asked.

“Two special ushpizin,” they responded. “Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson.”

We never did require the services of the special forces. The traditional ushpizin, however, have rendered faithful service to our household.

Sukkot, it seems to me, suffers from an abundance of thematic riches. Our literature explores so many different themes associated with the observance. Sitting around the festive holiday table, we discuss bitachon, or dependence upon God’s Providence. With walls of thin plywood and roofs of California palm provided by the city of Los Angeles, we talk about our own strategic envelope — of protection coming from above, rather than through the strength of our walls.

The clumsiness of the sukkah makes us examine the fragility of life, the nonpermanence of all our edifices. After a few days of this, we are no longer astonished by how much happiness and camaraderie comes with living simply, with nothing but a table, chairs and food shared with family and friends.

We ask ourselves what it takes to make us happy and how happiness is related to the baring of our souls and the unburdening of dead weight from our souls that Yom Kippur brings. We ponder the difference between the covering of sechach above us, which readily admits Divine illumination, and the opaque coverings that some cultures erect, shutting out any connection to the Divine.

We try to implement the feeling of unity of the Jewish people invoked by the Four Species that the Torah instructs us to take in hand on the first day of the holiday, each with its own flavor and texture, each symbolic of a different kind of Jew, and that become a mitzvah only when they are joined together.

Why, though, did our Creator park this treasure-trove of meaning in a lot that was already full? Weren’t Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur enough to explain to skeptical employers, hearing about yet another absence from the office? Wouldn’t January have been a better time for another holiday, maybe the week after spending winter school break with the kids? We could use a holiday then.

A holiday devoted to happiness and joy is the perfect chaser to the strong, dark brew of the reverence and sobriety of the Days of Awe. Associating Judaism with tension and seriousness is poison to the raising of Jewish children; Sukkot broadcasts the message that the serious stuff is always followed by good times. Still, could it have hurt to wait a month or two till the next holiday?

The answer has much to do with the High Holy Days and Jewish chutzpah. Some folks have structured entire religions around the theme of forgiveness and redemption. Jews wouldn’t settle for that; God had to give them more.

Once forgiven, what do we do for an encore? Sukkot argues that with the negative stuff out of the way, the only possible next step is forging a stronger, warmer relationship with God, with joy and celebration making the shidduch. Here’s where the ushpizin help on two levels.

You can’t build a relationship with something you cannot fathom and understand. If you want to feel close to God, you have to understand something about Him. At this point, things get a bit complicated.

Judaism, surprisingly, is not particularly top-heavy with theology, even though we taught the notion of a single God to a non-Jewish world that produced plenty of theology, when they weren’t too busy burning us. Our home-grown thinkers spent more time telling us what God isn’t than what He is.

They were aware of how little man could comprehend about God. Safer to say less than to subject God to an extreme Divine makeover and turn Him into our own image.

Without chapters of ominous-sounding prose, the ushpizin tell us about God. Each one represents a different aspect, a different characteristic about God. In the mystical tradition, each is an archetype of one the sefirot, the kabbalistic protocols through which the Divine will make its way down to what we experience as material reality.

We discover that, at least as observed through human eyes, the absolute unity of God has very different facets. This is more important than is first realized, especially in today’s world.

We observe that many of our neighbors get stuck on a single aspect of godliness, often with unhappy consequences. Some groups see God as synonymous with love — and leave no room for responsibility and justice. Others move in an opposing direction, finding God chiefly a Being of authority and stern justice and demanding submission to the point of sacrificing reason — and the rest of humanity.

Through the ushpizin, Jews encounter a God who, despite His unity, is thoroughly complex and can only be known to us in very different personalities. Through the Seven Shepherds, as they are called, we discover a hierarchy of values, with chesed, lovingkindness, at the top, but incomplete without reference to inner strength, to the intellectuality of Torah, to the binding of the spiritual to the practical.

Christmas in Sukkot?

Last year we moved into a home large enough to build the sukkah we’ve been
dreaming of for a long time.

My partner, Stephen Ariel, designed a sturdy,
easy-to-assemble structure, and with the abundant bamboo in our backyard we
could harvest homegrown skakh (branches used for covering the sukkah).
Thanks to help from my buddy Tom, the sukkah was erected in an afternoon.

The only thing left was what I had been waiting for — the decor. I dashed off to Target to get blue and white lights, then to the Mitzvah Store for ornaments, lulav and etrog. With our friends Wendy and Bo’s boys, Alek and Lukas, we were ready for hiddur ha’mitzvah, magnifying the mitzvah of making and dwelling in the sukkah.

I forget when it happened, but it was one of those “It should have been in a Woody Allen film” moments. As we were in the fervor of decorating, my partner came into the backyard and observed the giddy joy of what was going on.

“Gosh, it sure seems like Christmas time at the rabbi’s house,” he lovingly remarked.

We had a good laugh, but the comment stuck with me, ultimately resonating in a profound and unexpected manner a few days later.

We hung the lights as Sukkot drew near. Alec and Lucas provided valuable design assistance (as you would expect from a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old), and the etrog was placed in its multicolored velvet case. All that remained was to bring in the ushpizin, the honored, memorialized guests.

Facing east, I hung a beautiful banner reminding us of our heralded ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and King David. While the kids and I had generous ornaments and artwork to grace the roof and the lower walls, only the classic ushpizin occupied eye-level territory — and somehow, despite all of what was hanging, something was missing.

With my liberal Jewish mind in high gear, I got it — I needed more ushpizin! Besides the glory of our ancient guests, aren’t there so many more who no longer live, yet still infuse us with wisdom and illuminate our lives through their accomplishments?

The next day, I sat at the computer and created generations of new ushpizin to hang from our walls, feeling as if my whole Jewish perspective opened to a wider lens. Where to begin?

First, my biological family — many, sadly, who are gone but nonetheless inspired me in what I tried to accomplish first as a performing artist and now as a rabbi. Lore and Suissa Jeremias, my grandmother and her sister, concert pianists in Germany; Sam Goldman, the middle-class tailor who was a world-class grandpa; Shemayah Stein, my great-great-great grandfather, the first of four rabbis in our family; and among others, my mom and dad, whose presence I still miss. That placard alone inspired deep memories, but there were more to come: Theodore Herzl, Henrietta Szold, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin; Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk and Sigmund Freund; Maimonides, Ibn Ezra, Baruch Spinoza, Abraham Geiger and Abraham Joshua Heschel; S.Y. Agnon, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Anne Frank; Camille Pissarro, Marc Chagall, Judy Chicago and Louise Nevelson; Gustav Mahler, Maurice Ravel, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, whom I was blessed to know both as teacher and friend. These names, printed and laminated, now hung from the branches of the roof, and what was formerly only pretty d├ęcor now became a swirling medley of colors, textures, history and heritage.

As the sun set, I flipped the switch and our sechach was aglow, illuminated by myriad blue and white lights. The table, set with the lulav and etrog in their pride-of-place in the center, and the too-fun-not-to-pass-up glowing grape clusters (what can’t you find at Judaica stores?) wrapped gracefully around plates brimming with dessert delicacies.

Guests arrived, and with them, engaging comments: “Who was Louise Nevelson?”; “I didn’t know Pissarro was Jewish!”; “Who are all these Steins?”

Jews, Muslims and Christians partook in our mitzvah of leisheiv ba’sukkah (to sit in the sukkah) with equal measure of wonder and delight, curiosity and respect.

We gathered together to shake the lulav and etrog and spoke of God’s bountiful gift of food enough to feed the world — and humanity’s folly in not allowing that to happen. We remembered those suffering in Darfur, those who tragically understand the notion of “temporary dwelling” in a way we would never want to know. We thought of so many citizens of our city living in cardboard boxes not 10 miles from our home in the Miracle Mile, and what a miracle it was to just have a house to call your home.

We resolved through our ritual to diminish the nomadic reality of this world in some way — to take from our experience within the sukkah not simply a lovely Jewish ritual, but a sacred mandate to engage in tikkun olam. I stood amid family, friends, colleagues and new acquaintances featuring a rainbow of ages, faiths and backgrounds, all with faces aglow. As I observed this collage of humanity, warmth and generosity of spirit, I thought, “Maybe Stephen Ariel was right. Maybe there is a bit of ‘Christmas,’ literally Moshiachzeit — a messianic time — infusing our bamboo-roofed hut.”

Sometimes God’s gifts come in surprising packages.

Stephen Julius Stein is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the director of the synagogue’s Center for Religious Inquiry.