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The Holy Guest List

Published in Ayeka by Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer, Ayeka Senior Educator
Posted on October 12, 2019

The intense hours of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are behind us; days are cooler, evenings come earlier. Sukkot arrives and leads us to the door — to dwell outside, in a makeshift home, with a roof so flimsy it might easily blow away. Exposed to the elements, outside of our daily comfort zones, we come face-to-face with our fragility, our impermanence. And yet even there — even outside, even under a ceiling of branches, even in a breakable seven-day hut — we are supposed to welcome guests.

Why guests? The Talmud (Shabbat 127a) teaches that there are six things we can do that are so important — so impactful and powerful and long-lasting — that doing them will earn us divine rewards in the world to come. Six mitzvot that mean so much that their impact transcends time and space. And of these six, the first one is perhaps the most surprising in how seemingly ordinary it is: hachnassat orchim, welcoming guests.

But it’s not ordinary at all. Our people know the value of welcoming. Both law and lore emphasize it: the Torah repeats over and over — 36 times — that we must not oppress the stranger, always holding the memory of what it was like to be pushed outside, onto the margins. And Avraham, the first person to acknowledge the Creator of the Universe, is the stunning paragon of radical hospitality, going dramatically beyond the limits of comfort to extend a welcome to outsiders. 

And so this holiday beckons us, and demands of us: invite them in. 

Who is on your guest list? What folks will join you in your temporary home? Who will be present with you, out there among the elements, sitting with you under your flimsy roof and your makeshift walls? With whom do you want to share your fragility?

And what spiritual guests — visitors who fly from the pages of Torah, transcending time and space — will you invite? Whom do you need by your side in the Sukkah? Under your frail shelter, what eternal questions will you consider, discuss, confront? Avraham asks you: Whom are you willing to let in? Sarah challenges you: How do you fill your space with holy humor? Ya’akov says: What conflicts are you ready to wrestle with, all night long? Devorah dares you to consider: how do you use your wisdom, your power, your strength? Aharon arrives and asks you to pursue shalom, starting with your own heart and your own home. 

At first, it seems that we invite our Ushpizin to be kind and hospitable and generous. But truly, it’s a gift to ourselves, to elevate the Sukkah from a simple hut to a makom kadosh, a holy space — transcending time and space.