Published in The Jerusalem Post, October 2, 2020.
I’m hoping for seven days of virtual Sukkot guests (ushpizin), to debate Jewish life, Israeli policy, and world affairs, including: MBZ of the UAE, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Natan Sharansky, Rebbe Nachman and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, two top corona experts, two top (and opposing) justices of the Israeli Supreme Court, Rabbis Yeshayahu Heber, Nachum Eliezer Rabinovich, and Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz; and Rabbanit Miriam Levinger.
Hosting guests is central to the Sukkot holiday (the Feast of Tabernacles) that begins this weekend. Alas, corona cramps such hosting in this abnormal year, leaving us only with virtual guests.
According to kabbalistic lore, the Biblical founding fathers – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and King David – virtually grace our sukkahs with their spiritual legacies on each of the holiday’s seven days, one VIP at a time. These are known as the ushpizin (Aramaic for metaphoric guests).
In addition to these ageless ushpizin, here are seven sets of modern-day ushpizin that I would love to host in my sukkah – to debate Jewish life, Israeli policy, and world affairs.
Day One: Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ), Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. The bold leadership of MBZ led to the recent UAE peace treaty with Israel. I am particularly enamored by MBZ’s intimation that religious reconciliation with the Jewish People is the key to broader Middle East peace (as suggested by the luminously titled “Abraham Accords”). I would ask him to expand on this vision, and how he reimagines Islam’s place (sans radical Islamist jihadism) in the modern world. And I would fete him for his courageousness.
Day Two: Rabbi Lord Dr. Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth. The most salient philosophical-theological voice of our day for a return to shared moral foundations in rebuilding Western society and politics. But I would ask Rabbi Sacks how he sees any possibility of partnership with the extreme and increasingly dominant progressive Left in Europe and America, which purposefully has deconstructed all traditional notions of gender, family, and nationality.
Day Three: Natan Sharansky, former Prisoner of Zion in the USSR, former deputy prime minister of Israel, and former Jewish Agency chairman. His new book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People (with Prof. Gil Troy), is an idealist’s paean to Jewish unity and (at least) civility. But after all their pumping for enhanced Israel-Diaspora “dialogue” and “mutual empowerment,” I would ask Natan and Gil whether they see any chance for bridge building that truly traverses the yawning and growing gaps between the two communities.
Moreover, I would ask Natan why all the smart anti-antisemitism activities of the organized Jewish world have failed to stem today’s fearsome tide of anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist sentiment.
Day Four: Rebbe Nahman of Breslav, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Both these great hassidic leaders are deceased, but their dynasties live on and seem to be growing stronger. I would love to hear their Torah teachings and songs in my sukkah, but also would have some tough questions for each of them.
To Rebbe Nahman: Does it really make sense to have your disciples leave their large families for Rosh Hashana and tramp to your gravesite in G-d-forsaken Ukraine? Doesn’t real holiness inhere in the Land and State of Israel, not in golus (exile)? Can’t the Rebbe’s teachings and blessings just as well be accessed at a mass gathering of Breslever hassidim in the Negev? (And if the tziyun, the Rebbe’s burial mausoleum, is so important, couldn’t it be moved to Israel?)
To the Lubavitcher Rebbe: Imagine just how much more powerful Chabad’s shluchim (global outreach missionaries to the Jewish People) would be if a next Rebbe would be anointed! Why should Chabad be handicapped with residual messianic-personal balderdash that prevents a new Rebbe from taking the royal reins of this powerful and important movement?
Day Five: Prof. Ron Balitzer, director of the Clalit Research Institute and advisor to Israel’s coronavirus czar, and Prof. Anthony Fauci, one of the world’s leading experts on infectious diseases and head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. In my view, these two have been the most perspicacious experts over the past half year. If only their political masters would listen to them!
Obviously, I would solicit their unvarnished assessment of lockdown policies, treatment regimens, and vaccination developments for the coming year. Will it ever again be safe to fly freely, celebrate with big weddings, and attend concerts and Olympic games?
Day Six: Supreme Court Justices Esther Hayut and Alex Stein. Chief Justice Hayut and the newest justice Stein are polar opposites, liberal and conservative, respectively. I would ask them to explain to me how the court is going to regain the confidence of the Israeli public, when it seems to be pulverizing the people of Israel with its personal political prejudices and self-anointed values. In fact, I would warn them that the Court has gone beyond the limits of reasonable intervention in Israeli political and public life with its ever-expanding scope of super-subjective decision-making. Let’s hear the debate over this.
If there was time, I would also add to the discussion the late, great Prof. Ruth Gabison, an arch-crusader for Jewish human and national rights; alongside the International Criminal Court chief prosecutor, Ms. Fatou Bensouda. The latter threatens to open a criminal investigation into Israeli “war crimes” regarding IDF operations in the so-called “occupied territories” and regarding settlements in Judea and Samaria. I would have all four legal eagles battle this out, with the hope that Bensouda will see the light.
Day Seven: Rabbis Yeshayahu Heber, Nachum Eliezer Rabinovich, and Adin Even-Yisrael Steinsaltz – three giant righteous leaders who passed away recently. In the tradition of ushpizin, I want Rabbi Heber’s generosity of spirit, Rabbi Rabinovich’s intellectual genius, and Rabbi Steinsaltz’s broadness of mind as spiritual inheritances for my family.
In fact, we have been fortunate to taste the gifts of all three. My wife donated a kidney through Heber’s “Matnat Chaim” non-profit organization, and I have been privileged to learn from the halachic and Talmudic works of Rabinovich and Steinsaltz.
I would ask each of them to pontificate on the leadership qualities needed to lift the people of Israel out of the current doldrums, and to rekindle a spirit of brotherhood within our nation.
I would add to their conversation Rabbanit Miriam Levinger, who died this week. Levinger’s pioneering optimism and leadership (specifically, her famous Beit Hadassah vigil in Hebron) also is embedded deep in our family folklore. Rabbi Irwin Pechman, my late father-in-law, founded the American Friends of Hebron in the wake of Levinger’s trailblazing exploit.
Would these ushpizin join us, it would be quite a stimulating and fortifying holiday. Chag sameach!