One of the greatest zechusim a Jew has is to welcome the holy Ushpizin to his sukkah. To be sure, there were gedolim who actually saw these celestial visitors and even assigned them specific seats in the sukkah based upon their order of “appearance.”
The Vilna Gaon (Pardes Eliezer 1:402), Apter Rebbe (ibid., page 407), Chasam Sofer (Pressburg Haggadah, page 63), admorim of Komarna and Zidichov (Sefer De’eh Chochmah Lenafshecha, Parshas Mishpatim) and many others were reported to have seen Avrohom Avinu, Yitzchok Avinu, Yaakov Avinu, Moshe Rabbeinu, Aharon Hakohein, Yosef Hatzaddik and Dovid Hamelech as clearly as we relate to each other.
For the overwhelming majority of us, we will have to be satisfied with the Kotzker Rebbe’s famous aphorism that “there are tzaddikim who say that they merited seeing the Ushpizin in their sukkah. However, I believe that they come to the sukkah and belief is even greater than physical sight” (Oros Hamoadim, page 80).
According to the traditional story of the Apter’s Ushpizin, one of his guests who had supplied virtually all the food, candles and even a lulav and an esrog for the Rebbe’s destitute family that year was initially offended that despite all of his largesse, the Rebbe seemed to seat him unnecessarily eight seats away from the Apter’s own chair. Upon the Rebbe’s revelation that those chairs were reserved for the Ushpizin, whom the Rebbe could actually identify, the Rebbe’s benefactor insisted that he, too, be given this privilege. The Rebbe explained respectfully but firmly that this would surely result in his guest’s almost immediate death. The determined guest insisted, was warned that he should bid farewell to his family, beheld the awesome visitors and soon passed away.
So let’s face it. We clearly do not want to see these holy spirits, but it would behoove us to understand why they come and what exactly we can gain from their extraordinary visit to our humble world and abode.
In order to answer these important questions, we must first understand why they only come to visit on Sukkos. Surely, the Pesach Seder or the reliving of Mattan Torah on Shavuos would also be a propitious time for these holy neshamos to elevate our Yom Tov tables. (In fact, there is a somewhat cryptic reference to the “Pesach Ushpizin” in the Imrei Emes, Pesach, page 60, but it seems to simply refer to the middos of the avos and imahos that enhance the Yom Tov.)
We find that two gedolim, coming from quite disparate backgrounds, suggested almost identical approaches to this issue. Rav Yechezkel Sarna zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron, cites the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 7:6), who describes the incredible spiritual transformation of someone who does teshuvah: “Yesterday, this person was hated by Hashem, considered repugnant, repudiated and abominable. However, today he has become beloved, cherished, treasured and a friend.” Furthermore, the Vilna Gaon (Shir Hashirim) interprets the posuk in Hallel (Tehillim 113:7), “He raises the needy from the dust,” as meaning those needy in mitzvos. “From the trash heaps He lifts the destitute” refers to the baalei teshuvah. “To seat them with nobles, with the nobles of His people” means that after the forgiveness of Yom Kippur, they will dwell with the holy avos on Sukkos, a direct reference to the Ushpizin. Rav Sarna (Delayos Yechezkel 3:201) sees in these words of the Vilna Gaon an authoritative answer to the query about the exclusive relationship between Sukkos and the Ushpizin. The Sefas Emes (Sukkos 5652) similarly quotes this verse in Tehillim, but adds a twist. Quoting his grandfather, the Chiddushei Harim, the Sefas Emes explains that “Hashem helps the Bnei Yisroel raise their deepest yearnings from the trash heaps and vanities of the world. Through their teshuvah, the Bnei Yisroel are able to rediscover their profound longing for Hashem and they once again become His beloved, who now sit at the table with the nobles of His people.”
My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l (Maamorei Pachad Yitzchok 54:13, 97:13, 98:2) added another dimension to this thought. He explains at some length that all of the Ushpizin are the ones who helped bring about forgiveness for the great sin of the Eigel. They then come as honored guests to the sukkah, which represents the joy we all attained upon having returned to the good graces of Hashem. This approach is also based upon the interpretation of the Vilna Gaon on Shir Hashirim (1:4, page 40) that Sukkos does not just commemorate the granting of the Ananei Hakavod, the Clouds of Glory, but of their return on the 15th of Tishrei, after the absolution we were granted on Yom Kippur (see Pachad Yitzchok, Rosh Hashanah, 9-10).
When viewed through the shining prism of these insights, we can readily understand why the Ushpizin come specifically on Sukkos. Each of them has a share in our mechilah, selichah and kapparah, and we want to share our joy with them at this time. Furthermore, our elevated spiritual state is their nachas as well, and they come like the proud grandparents they are. In fact, the Belzer Rebbe, the Sar Shalom, revealed that when the avos arrive, the imahos are not far behind, enjoying the nachas and elevating us once again by their very presence (Midbar Kodesh, page 142).
We are now in a position to understand the words of the Divrei Chaim (Sukkos, s.v. “baposuk”). He explains that each of the Ushpizin, during their sojourn in this world, exemplified the ideal of “serving Hashem in every aspect of life, when they worked in the field, were shepherds for their flocks and whatever they did.” He goes on to conclude that “after we have atoned on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for our sins…we can connect to Hashem in everything that we do, including eating, drinking and sleeping.”
This concept also echoes a widely quoted Chassidic maxim that the sukkah is unique in that our entire body enters this mitzvah, head to toe, with nothing left out.” This means that once we have been cleansed and purified by Yom Kippur, we can enter the holy structure that is made up of both names of Hashem, the ineffable Havayah (26) and the name we actually pronounce, known as Adnus (65), which together equal 91, the same gematriah (numerical value) as sukkah. As is pointed out in many seforim, the word amein also adds up to 91, since Chazal (Shabbos 119b) teach us that amein represents our emunah, total belief and trust in Hashem. Thus, we literally enter Hashem’s domain, but we dare do so only after we have achieved the taharah and emunah necessary for this major transition. It is the visitors from beyond who help us achieve this transformation, but this could not happen without our own avodah for forty days since Rosh Chodesh Elul, culminating in the sublime spiritual culmination of Ne’ilah.
The Aleksander Rebbe (Yismach Yisroel, Sukkos, No. 21, page 156) leads us even deeper into the tremendous spiritual gains we can achieve by being in the presence of the Ushpizin. Since each one of the Ushpizin represents a different middah, a trait that we need to properly serve our Creator, the week we spend in their presence affords us a unique opportunity to absorb by osmosis their wonderful characteristics of chesed, gevurah, tiferes, netzach, ahavah, yesod and malchus. These are the building blocks of Klal Yisroel in general and of each of us as individuals. The Yismach Yisroel concludes amazingly that even if our Yom Kippur was less than perfect, the “seven shepherds can help us rectify that which eluded us all year.”
The Ushpizin are therefore our friends (as the Rambam indicates in Hilchos Teshuvah), who come to help us complete the process we began during Elul. However, they help us not through fasting, confession or crying, but through the simchah of knowing that we are never alone in our quest. Even if we do not see them, we believe that they are there, as the Kotzker taught us, and we feel their love and warmth, which echo those of our Creator Himself. We happily invite them to our Yom Tov table, knowing that they, too, managed to sanctify every aspect of life, even as they struggled with every vicissitude life has to offer and emerged spiritually triumphant. We learn from them, grow from them, and take their light with us, even as we emerge from our sukkah into a world full of challenges. May we emulate their examples, even as we channel their greatness into our own newly rejuvenated lives.
For those who wish to further explore the world of the Ushpizin, I recommend a new sefer, “Ha-Ushpizin,” from which I culled some of the sources in this article.
A gutten Yom Tov.