Sukkot’ Reflections In Corona Times

Ushpizin and Corona

There are only two Biblical Feasts that have some intermediate days between the first and the last day of the holiday. In Leviticus 23, we read that on the first and on the seventh day of the Passover shall be “a holy convocation” and  Shabbat-rest with no work, and on the first and the eighth day of the Feast of Tabernacles shall be “a holy convocation” and Shabbat-rest with no work. The days in between these first and last days are called “intermediate days” of the festival:  Hol Hamoed. On these days, we greet one another with the words: Moadim leSimcha and many people still work, although the atmosphere is very festive and the little booths – sukkot – are everywhere.

It is customary, and is considered a great blessing, to have guests in your sukkah (booth). Inviting guests unto one’s sukkah is one of the most important aspects of Sukkot . Throughout the week of the Feast, people move from sukkah to sukkah, offering hospitality and experiencing hospitality—switching from being hosts to being guests. To those who haven’t seen it, I highly recommend watching a wonderful Israel movie Ushpizin.

The custom of having guests on Sukkot is called ushpizin (ushpizin, אושפיזין, “guests” in Aramaic), after the original custom of “ushpizin”—inviting not just physical guests to one’s sukkah, but spiritual, or transcendental guests, like the “seven shepherds” of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David.

This welcoming of seven “exalted guests” into one’s sukkah becomes even more profound and meaningful this year, as we are prohibited from having real guests in our sukkah. In these days and months of Corona, as we feel ourselves powerless and helpless, the message of our Ushpizin guests becomes even more important:  may the weakness we feel deepen our sensitivity towards the weakness of the others, our desire to help each other, and our trust in Him. Sukkah is a reflection of Israel’s twofold experience in the wilderness, both extremely difficult and extremely glorious, living in humble huts but enveloped by God’s Glory! May we all remember that while we are powerless—He is ever powerful!

The Jewish tradition says that each night a different Ushpizin guest enters the sukkah, and each of them has a lesson to teach!  Abraham is the first guest, and in many ways, the Sukkah represents and reflects the tent of Abraham – so let us listen to Abraham’s lesson today!

The Message of Abraham

First, I would like to remind you that in Genesis 17 God appeared to Abraham after 13 years of silence. Ishmael was about 13 years old at this time. The promise that shook Abraham’s world—that he would have another son—came in verse 16. This was preceded by a long message, however, when God explained to Abraham that He was making a covenant with him and with his descendants forever. The covenant of circumcision was introduced here, and at the end of this chapter we read: “So Abraham took Ishmael his son… every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very same day, as God had said to him.”

It is after this encounter that the famous chapter 18 comes. The Torah doesn’t tell us the time between God’s appearance to Abraham in chapter 17 and His appearance by the trees of Mamre in chapter 18, but according to Jewish commentaries, just a few days had passed since Abraham’s circumcision at the end of chapter 17, so Abraham was not yet completely recovered. There is a Talmudic commentary saying that God came to visit Abraham just a few days after chapter 17, while he was still healing after his circumcision, to establish the mitzvah, commandment, to visit the sick.  In Judaism, the commandment of visiting the sick (bikkur cholim) is considered as a very important deed. Concerning this mitzvah, the Mishnah states that this is one of those actions of which one “eats of its fruits” in this world and retains the “principle” in the next world.

The Torah, however, doesn’t mention any of it. Instead, we see something absolutely amazing, that in my opinion reflects the struggle in Abraham’s heart after his encounter with God in chapter 17. The famous beginning of chapter 18: “the Lord appeared to Abraham,” is followed by a conversation between Abraham and his guests, and it is here, in this conversation that we discover something that is completely lost in translation. Look at the Hebrew text below (and I apologize for having this Hebrew text here, but this is the only way I could show you what I am talking about), and even if you don’t know Hebrew at all, you can still recognize that the Hebrew here switches from the singular (underlined) to plural (bold). Why? The comments say that it reflects Abraham’s uncertainty over whether the visitors were human or Divine. For instance, there is a controversy whether Adonai here is to be read as a sacred word, “My Lord”, or as a regular plural “lords” (the  Hebrew here allows both readings). It’s interesting that when the Torah itself describes the visitors, it never doubts, it always uses plural referring to them; but when Abraham is addressing them, especially in the beginning, his sentences are couched alternately in the singular and plural  – he is clearly uncertain.

ג  וַיֹּאמַר:  אֲדֹנָי, אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ–אַל-נָא תַעֲבֹר, מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ. 3 and said: ‘My lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant.
ד  יֻקַּח-נָא מְעַט-מַיִם, וְרַחֲצוּ רַגְלֵיכֶם; וְהִשָּׁעֲנוּ, תַּחַת הָעֵץ. 4 Let now a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and recline yourselves under the tree.
ה  וְאֶקְחָה פַת-לֶחֶם וְסַעֲדוּ לִבְּכֶם, אַחַר תַּעֲבֹרוּ–כִּי-עַל-כֵּן עֲבַרְתֶּם, עַל-עַבְדְּכֶם; וַיֹּאמְרוּ, כֵּן תַּעֲשֶׂה כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ. 5 And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and stay ye your heart; after that ye shall pass on; forasmuch as ye are come to your servant.’ And they said: ‘So do, as thou hast said.’

 

I believe that right here, straight after chapter 17 with its breaking news, this interplay between singular and plural comes as an expression of Abraham’s hesitation and inner struggle between the natural and supernatural: whether he believed, or even wanted to believe, the supernatural promise of Genesis 17. However, there is something else we can learn from this story, and that will be our Sukkot lesson today.

Talmud says that we should see an account of Abraham’s hospitality in these verses. The whole motif of hospitality is emphasized very strongly in Jewish tradition, and the statements praising the practice of hospitality abound in Rabbinic literature. And it is from here, from Genesis 18, that the mitzvah of hospitality is originally derived. Even this interplay between plural and singular should be seen as a record of Abraham’s hospitality, Talmud says: Abraham was first addressing God, and therefore “Adonai” in verse 3 should be read as “My Lord” – but when he realized that three men were approaching, he excused himself to show them all hospitality. Hence is the Talmudic summary of this lesson: “The practice of hospitality is even greater than welcoming the Divine Presence [Sh’khinah]”.

 

The insights you read on these pages, are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion)  classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying  in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insightsI would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding  eTeacher courses (juliab@eteachergroup.com) .

Excerpts from my books are included in this article  (and many other posts here), so if you like the  articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,  if you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books. Today,  I have a special announcement: Since we will be beginning a new Torah Reading cycle in a few days, I would like to bless my readers with a  holiday discount on my book: “The Bible stories you didn’t know: In the Beginning“.  This book provides Hebrew insights into the very first Torah Portion – the first chapters of Genesis. The discount  is valid starting October 9th.  Enjoy and be blessed! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

You might also be interested in:

Family Dynamics

By Julia Blum

The Overlooked Parallels

By Julia Blum

Join the conversation (2 comments)

Leave a Reply

  1. Nick

    Indeed, how we view and treat our fellow human beings-“ in as much as you have done to one of the least of these…….”
    Thanks, Julia
    Nick

    1. Julia Blum

      Yes, Nick, Sukkot is all about how we treat the others: it’s enough to watch this Israeli movie Ushpizin, in order to get a very clear picture. That is why it was especially difficult this year, during the quarantine.