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October 6, 2017  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

The sukkah at the end of the world

By RABBI NATHAN FARB Congregation Schaarai Zedek

You may remember as a kid decorating a Sukkah with colorful hanging fruits and gourds, singing songs, or taking turns waving the lulav and etrog. Yet far from a children’s playpen, the Sukkah is a powerful symbol of some of the most fundamental principles in Judaism. The Hashkiveinu prayer includes the words, “Ufros ‘Aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha, Spread over us the Sukkah of Your peace.” Although we often translate Sukkah as “booth” (or sometimes even “tabernacle”), it is more accurate to understand it as a form of Divine Shelter. The physical Sukkah serves as a flimsy literal shelter, but represents a powerful symbol of the Divine protection that shelters us throughout the year.

The Zohar, the most important book of Kabbalah, accentuates the importance of Sukkot as a symbol. A sukkah is a temporary home, and so serves as a reminder that every home is temporary in the grand view of history. Only once we understand this impermanence, can we begin to comprehend the things in our life that are truly eternal throughout every generation. For this reason, the Zohar (3:103a-104a) enumerates the righteous ancestors of our people who symbolically join us each day in the Sukkah. They are known as the Ushpizin, the seven “Visitors.” According to the famous 16th century mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria, they are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David; one for each of the seven days of Sukkot.

Each one of these figures represent a different type of sheltering presence that we receive from God. They also represent the seven lower sefirot that are accessible to human beings. According to Kabballah, there are 10 sefirot or “Spheres” that form the bridge between the physical world and the spiritual world. Abraham represents Chesed, “loving-kindness,” Isaac represents Gevurah, “might,” Jacob represents Tiferet, “beauty/harmony,” Moses is Netzach, “triumph,” Aaron is Hod, “majesty,” Joseph is Yesod, “foundation,” and David is Malchut, “Kingdom” (some mystics identify the order a little differently).

Rabbi Menachem Azariah deFano, living a generation after Luria, made another astonishing connection. The Talmud lists seven prophetesses, Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Hulda, and Esther (Megillah 14a-b). Dating back at least from the 13th century, these prophetesses have been associated with the same seven sefirot (Rabbeinu Bahya, on Ex 15:20). Connecting the dots (or spheres, rather), deFano realized that there were not just 7 visitors, but seven pairs of visitors.

According to tradition, it is not only a great mitzvah to welcome guests into a sukkah, but it is a sign of great honor to be visited by strangers. Each visitor should be regarded as a great prophet from our past, since you never know who they may be in disguise. Every simchah in Judaism, every moment of joy, is magnified by sharing it with others. In fact without sharing, there can be no true joy. Any joy experienced alone is merely selfish satisfaction.

There is a final teaching about the Sukkah. It is said that in the perfected world to come, all of humanity will be united under a single great sukkah (Bava Batra 75a). At the close of each Sukkot, we pray that that the coming year will bring us all nearer to that perfected world when we may dwell in peace together for all time.

Chag Sameach!

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association which assigns the column on a rotating basis.

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