By Esther D. Kustanowitz
When the holiday of Sukkot approaches each year, we focus on mechanics: coordinating the meals, building the frame of the sukka, making sure that decorations are spaced evenly, covering the roof with skhakh (leafy branches that cover the top of the sukka), assembling the arba minim (The Four Species including lulav and etrog). By the time candles are lit, it has become a challenge to transcend mechanics and approach the holiday with spiritual enthusiasm. For this reason, the tradition of inviting the ushpizin, some of the most prominent and distinguished male Biblical figures, sometimes seems less important. Perhaps we, as women, would view the tradition as more integral if the list of ushpizin included some of the heroic women of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible).
According to the mystics who wrote the Kabbalah, each guest (ushpiz) represented a specific manifestation of God, or sefira. There are seven sefirot in Kabbalistic tradition. Sixteenth century mystic Menachem Azariah (The Ramoh of Fano) suggested that these female figures be invited into the sukka as ushpizot:* Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah and Esther. Other traditions include Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
Ma'yan, the Jewish Women's Project of the JCC of the Upper West Side, accepted the implicit challenge, creating a meaningful ritual to link Jewish Biblical heroines to the established heroes of the ushpizin tradition.
Sarah and Abraham represent Hesed (grace or loving-kindness).
Miriam, Rebecca and Isaac manifest Gevura (strength or bravery).
Deborah, Rachel and Jacob symbolize Tiferet (harmony, compassion, beauty).
Hannah, Leah and Moses are linked with Netzah (victory, ambition and lasting endurance).
Abigail and Aaron represent Hod (a Divine splendor or majesty).
Huldah and Joseph are paired with Yesod (foundation).
Esther and David represent Malhut (royalty and sovereignty).
We can welcome the ushpizot using this adaptation of the traditional Aramaic formulation for welcoming the ushpizin:
USHPIZOT Blessing, written by Tamara Cohen
Enter holy guests from on high; enter, hallowed mothers of our people, sisters, wise women and prophets. Take your place with us under the protecting canopy of the Shekhina (God's Presence), in this sukka of peace. Enter Sarah, Miriam, Hannah, Deborah, Abigail, Huldah, Esther.
Enter (add names of others whom you would like to honor with an invitation). Enter all those whose names we don't even know because you have been lost to us.
We are ready to fulfill the ancient words which call us still: "You shall dwell in booths seven days, all that are Israelite born shall dwell in booths, in order that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt (the land of narrow places)."
As we welcome you today into sukka, may we soon welcome into our communities all women who, like you, have voices, visions and leadership much needed in our communities. Take your place, take your place, guests from on high.
Take your place, take your place, hallowed guests. May we all join you in taking our own places and in making places for others under the protection of the Shekhina.
The expansion of this ritual to include women has tremendous potential for us as women and as members of a family and/or community. Discussion can be expanded to include the whole family. What does each sefira mean? Can we provide textual examples of how each sefira is a representation of the behavior of God? How does each hero embody the quality/sefira with which he or she is paired? How do the heroes and the heroines relate to each other? If we had to pick contemporary guests for our sukkot, who would they be and why?
The complete Ushpizot program can be viewed on Ma'yan's website: www.mayan.org. For more information on women's approaches to Jewish spirituality and lifecycle events, contact Ma'yan at (212) 580-0099, extension 232, or via email at: mayanj cc@aol coin.