Selflessness

Many of us left shule and started building our Sukka straight away, going from mitzvah to mitzvah as we prepare to leave our solid homes and live in these temporary structures. Sukkot is a week-long carnival of unusual customs and curious ceromonies - a time of year where we engage more heavily in the practical element of Jewish living than any other. We abandon our homes, eat lengthy meals in precariously constructed huts, vigorously wave vegetation in shule, dance ecstatically with the Torah and spend a week in a carefully constructed cocoon of festivity and gratitude. 

One particularly delightful Sukkah custom is that of ‘inviting’ our ancestors to dine with us – the ushpizin. In addition to family and friends, a tradition has developed whereby on each night of Sukkot, a different Biblical figure is welcomed to dine with us at our table, and we tailor our conversation accordingly. Our ‘guest’ on the first night of Sukkot (the most significant night of the festival, according to Jewish Law) is none other than our patriarch Abraham, the founder of the Jewish people and the Biblical exemplar of the attribute of Hesed – loving-kindness. Indeed, upon reflection, we can actually see that the figure of Abraham neatly represents the entire festival of Sukkot, and embodies one of the primary functions of the enigmatic ritual of the Sukkah itself. 

In one of the most symbolically poignant stories of Genesis (ch. 18), Abraham is depicted as waiting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Picture the scene: a 99-year-old man, during the sweltering midday heat of the desert, not long after a painful operation, is sitting in his tent, bristling with excitement. Why? He senses an opportunity for an act of kindness, to invite some weary travelers into home. Despite inhabiting a tent - the poorest and most makeshift of dwellings - the prospect of enabling others to share in his blessings, and the ability to bestow goodwill upon others by inviting them into his humble abode, animate our benevolent forefather. Abraham, the founder of everything Jewish, embodies the ethos of Hachnasat Orchim - inviting guests. 

Throughout Sukkot we re-enact this awe-inspiring trait of selflessness. We are commanded to leave our homes and take up dwelling in the humblest of circumstances imaginable - yet we cannot conceive of doing this by ourselves. The Jewish heart sees the Sukkah as an unparalleled opportunity to marvel in our own blessings. We invite family, friends and even complete strangers to partake of our grateful happiness, to demonstrate that even while living (temporarily) with the basics, we still find room to share that which we have. It is an entire festival dedicated to the ethos of Abraham, a celebration of boundless generosity. This is neatly summed up by an aphorism from the Ethics of the Fathers (4:9): “Rabbi Yonatan says: Anyone who implements Torah when they are poor will end up implementing it when they are wealthy.”

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