There is a story told of Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev that he was feeling chalisha [weak] before the holiday of Sukkot began. He had worn himself out with the fervency of his Yom Kippur prayers. His students gathered around him and waved an Etrog under his nose and the strong and unique smell of the fruit revived his spirits and he entered the season with the appropriate energy and joy.
I appreciate Levi Yitzhak’s tiredness. It feels like it takes a lot of energy to arouse oneself from the long fast of Yom Kippur to move to the tasks of building a sukkah. While I didn’t have my students waving an Etrog under my nose, last year on the morning after Yom Kippur I woke up to my daughter waving a disgusting pink acrylic spray paint can and asking me to get up.
Last year as part of preparing for her bat mitzvah, my daughter committed to a year of raising money for cancer research in honor of her grandmother and other family members who suffered from breast cancer. Somewhere in a conversation between my daughter and my wife, the idea arose of making our sukkah entirely pink and then inviting people over to make a sukkah decoration in memory of loved ones they had lost to cancer. The decorations would also serve as ushpizin.
Ushpizin is the custom of symbolically inviting seven patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David – into the sukkah. There is an ushpizin prayer which welcomes a different “guest” into the sukkah each night. The custom has been changed by some to include seven matriarchs. As well, some include loved ones or other historical figures that one wants to symbolically invite into their temporary home. Some people put up pictures of their “guests” on the walls of their sukkah. Folks who came over and made decorations in memory of their loved ones could then “invite” them into their sukkah, or if they did not have a sukkah, they could leave it with us and know that their loved one was being invited into our sukkah.
As it is with many projects in my house, I mumbled and grumbled and threw up all sorts of reasons why this was a bad idea. How would we make the sukkah pink? Why would anyone come over to make ushpizin? Would this really encourage giving to cancer research? We would have to get lots of supplies and this would take effort. I am a good naysayer. I tried to talk everyone out of it until the invitations and announcements went out and I had no choice but to make it happen.
Although spray paint is not a particular environmental approach to the holiday and I would encourage other methods of coloring, it had the same revivifying effects on me as the Etrog did for Levi Yitzhak. My daughter and I spray painted our s’chach a bright pink and covered the walls with pink paper and hung pink streamers all over the sukkah. People came, they had a great time making decorations, they donated – in short, everything I tried to convince my wife and daughter would not happen, happened.
Sometimes adding new touches and innovations to Jewish rituals feels awkward and clunky, but somehow creating a pink-breast-cancer-research-supporting sukkah felt entirely consistent with the holiday and more like, “why haven’t we done this before.”
Every year during Sukkot, my daughters convince me to spend one night sleeping in the sukkah – I usually grumble and mumble about this too saying that I am never going to get to sleep, even as in truth I am happy to fulfill this mitzvah with them – but last year sleeping on the floor of our hot pink sukkah with pictures and decorations in memoriam to people who were loved on the walls, I didn’t mumble or grumble I entered the season with the appropriate energy and joy.
Rabbi Dan Judson is Director of Professional Development and Placement at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University in Jewish History, and rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“
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