I had the privilege of being invited to a friend’s home for a Sukkot meal. Following the recitation of the traditional ushpizin in his family sukkah, I suggested that we add others, in the spirit of Edmon Rodman’s vibrant Oct. 10 article in which he offered his own guest list that included Jewish heroes and personalities from history and invoked their unique contributions and character.
I recommended the inclusion of Cesar Kaskel, who in 1862 convinced President Lincoln to reverse an eviction order of Jews from Paducah, Ky.
I was therefore startled when my host declined my suggestion, insisting that the traditional invitees – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, David – were “handpicked” by our sages; as such, the list was inviolate.
Do people in our community, and in the larger Orthodox community, really believe that the invitation extended in the ushpizin is meant literally? Do these patriarchs and prophets really enter the sukkah, like Santa enters the homes of good (Christian) boys and girls on Christmas eve? Does the prophet Elijah truly drink from the fifth cup at every seder? It would be a tragedy if the wisdom of our tradition has been corrupted into a rigid and childish fable. The point of ushpizin is the reminder that each of those select seven had a quality worth emulating. It is not only valid but honorable to include others from history who have acted with courage or knowledge and can also inspire us by example.