What is the Garden of Eden? This is the place where worthy souls, having passed from this world, enjoy the light of the divine presence as they await entrance to the World to Come – i.e. the post-Messianic age (Talmud - Shabbat 152b; Derech Hashem 1:3:11).
The Zohar, the foremost book of Jewish mysticism, explains that the Sukkah generates such an intense concentration of spiritual energy, that the divine presence actually manifests itself there in a similar way to Eden. During Sukkot the souls of the seven great leaders of Israel – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and King David – actually leave Gan Eden to partake in the divine light of the earthly Sukkot (Zohar - Emor 103a).
Each day of Sukkot, all seven souls are present, but each takes his turn to lead the other six. Collectively these transcendent guests are known as Ushpizin, the Aramaic word meaning "guests." To welcome these illustrious souls, many have the custom to recite a lengthy mystical invitation upon entering the Sukkah for the first time. Additionally, many invite the Ushpizin each time they partake of a meal in the Sukkah. Some Sephardic Jews even have the custom of setting aside an ornately-decorated chair covered with fine cloth and holy books.
Seven Holy Leaders
Delving deeper, we find that the Ushpizin fit into a recurrent theme in Jewish philosophy – that time moves in set patterns and that history is moving toward an ultimate goal (Derech Hashem 4:7:2).
King David writes: "A thousand years in Your eyes are like a day" (Psalms 90:4). Each day of Sukkot corresponds to one of the days of the week, and to each of the seven millennia of human history – starting with Adam and leading to the Messianic era (Talmud - Sanhedrin 97a; Derech Hashem 1:3:9). Accompanied by the seven great leaders, Sukkot is the holiday that represents the concept of the Jewish people working together to bring about world peace and perfection (Sfas Emes).
Further, the Jewish mystical texts explain that each of the seven Ushpizin correspond to a fundamental spiritual pathway (sefirah) through which the world is metaphysically nourished and perfected (Derech Hashem 3:2:5, Zohar Chadash, Toldot 26c; cf. Zohar 2:256a).
- Abraham represents love and kindness
- Isaac represents restraint and personal strength
- Jacob represents beauty and truth
- Moses represents eternality and dominance through Torah
- Aaron represents empathy and receptivity to divine splendor
- Joseph represents holiness and the spiritual foundation
- David represents the establishment of the kingdom of Heaven on Earth
When we act in ways that manifest one of these spiritual attributes, the divine light (as directed through that particular transcendental conduit) shines down into the world and brings it closer to its completion (Derech Hashem 4:2:2,5). As the Talmud says: "With the very measuring cup that a person measures, are [the spiritual influences] measured out for him" (Sotah 8b).
Feeding The Poor
Aside from these lofty spiritual matters, Judaism's primary emphasis remains on human actions. The Zohar (Emor 103a), after explaining the Ushpizin, continues:
"One must also gladden the poor, and the portion [that would otherwise have been set aside for these Ushpizin] guests should go to the poor. For if a person sits in the shadow of faith and invites those guests and does not give their portion [to the poor], they all remain distant from him...
One should not say "I will first satisfy myself with food and drink, and I shall give the leftovers to the poor." Rather, the first of everything must be for one's guests. If one gladdens his guests and satisfies them, God rejoices over him. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the others shower him..."
Similarly, Maimonides brings this as a matter of religious obligation: "While eating and drinking himself, one is obligated to feed the stranger, orphan, and widow, along with the other unfortunate poor... [One who does not] is not enjoying a mitzvah, but rather his stomach" (Laws of Yom Tov 6:18).
May the inspiration of the holy Ushpizin guests help us to fulfill the potential of the Sukkot holiday – enjoying and uplifting both ourselves and the world around us!