Sitting alone in my sukkah this evening, without the family who joined us last night, I enumerated family whose presence I felt even though I never met them: my personal Ushpizin. The grandparents and great grandparents I never met but whose real or imaginary pictures GIF in my head. The uncles and aunts long dead, and by implication the earlier generations without whom none of the people I have loved would exist. Naturally I wonder what sukkot they sat in; how they decorated; what prayers they said; and what they would think of the sukkah I built with my wife, Kacy, in our back yard, in which the 3 generations of our family -- their blood -- gathered.
They'd be astounded at the way we live. They never would have conceived of the mechanisms (think lights, lightweight plastics, cell phones) by and with which we live. Go back just over a century, and our standard of living far surpasses even royalty.
(My sister, Barbara z"l and I are in the front row]
But how would our ancestors evaluate our spiritual lives? Would they think us impoverished because families separate and plant roots so far apart? Because we have so little time for one another? Because we don't share our homes with one another, let alone with neighbors or strangers? For past generations, as the title of a sociology study about Jewish life circa 1900 indicated, "Life is with People."
Are we likewise estranged from ourselves? So many of us can discover no deeper meaning in life, no ultimate reason for our existence, no sustaining love, no greater eternal commitments that take us beyond our petty day to day concerns to give our lives ultimate meaning through devotion.
The sukkah's fragility, it's construction by our own hands, it's roof that reveals the sky and stars (difficult to discern near city lights), its temporary construction, reminds us of life's brief span. But also, the content of our lives demands mindfulness of God's creation that provides the context for our lives. We motivate ourselves with meaning provided in God's creation.
So many moderns live in and for ourselves. This destructive focus on self minimizes the ultimate significance of our lives as bearers of meaning to one another, creatures that can reduce suffering, create loving, build a world of purpose and knowledge. We humans rejoice not simply for pleasure but for the ultimacy we create through community, through selfless giving, through altruism that gratuitously blesses lives.
Inviting my ancestors into my sukkah reminds me that my life not only depends on their physical existence but also the spiritual meaning that they created in their own context and passed on to me. That spiritual life, celebrated in small acts of ritual and loving kindness not only support my sukkah, and my present existence in a family and community, but also future generations as unknown to me as my life was to my ushpizin, the guests in my sukkah.
Sukkot, the realization of life's fragility and ultimate meaning that depends on our actions, after our repentance and renewal at the High Holy Days, creates within an inner satisfaction, a contented spirit, a nachat ruach -- contentment of soul, that I feel certain is the spiritual inheritance my ancestors felt. They intended to pass along that spiritual contentment to the descendants they could only imagine, but for whom they would be a blessing.