When the Children of Israel left Egypt, the Lord had them stay in Succoth – temporary dwellings. As a reminder of the miracles that happened to them in the desert, during the Exodus, The Children of Israel are commanded, each year, to leave their homes and dwell in Succoth for seven days. They are also commanded to make blessings on the Four Species: date-palm branches, myrtle, willow, and citron.
Ushpizin: Aramaic word for guests. During the Festival of Succoth, it is customary to host guests in the Succah.
This is the opening screen from the Israeli movie, Ushpizin. I had watched it several years ago, and remembered that I had really liked it, and thought it might be a good movie to write about. I remembered it as a pleasant, mostly lighthearted comedy—a movie for relaxing, not especially for thinking. When I watched it again last night, I was really surprised. Ushpizin does fit the definition of comedy in which a comedy is a drama with a happy ending, and it does contain its share of comedic moments, but it also deals with profound spiritual truth.
Early in the movie, we hear a scholar in the yeshiva reading this :
When the evil urge provokes one to anger, at the moment, good wants to descend from above. The evil urge wants to ruin that. Thus, one should always guard himself against anger, not to ruin the good that Heaven wants to bestow.
When he finishes reading, he lifts his head and says in an awed voice, “Oh man, you have to keep your eyes wide open. We're all being constantly tested.” The rest of this film serves to illustrate this truth.
As the film begins, Moshe Bellanga is in the marketplace where men are shopping for the Four Species used for the feast. Moshe enters a room where men are evaluating citrons. They dismiss Moshe to a table where he can find cheap citrons, because they are busy admiring the diamond, a perfect citron which can be sold for 1,000 shekels. Moshe walks to the table and examines the wonder, but in the end, he cannot even afford a 25 shekel citron.
Meanwhile, Moshe's wife, Malli is at home, hiding from the rent-collector and hoping that Moshe will be home soon with some money, but she is going to be disappointed. The men who dole out money at the yeshiva have decided that Moshe will get nothing. I'm not too clear about why they would give him money, or why they chose not to, but at any rate, Malli attributes part of this decision to the fact that he is too good, too accepting. Moshe and Malli are very much in love with one another, but their marriage is under a great strain. They have no money for the rent, no money to buy the Four Species, no succah, and worst of all, no child.
At this point, Moshe leaves and Malli stays at home. They both begin to pray, and their prayer is deep, and very personal. Their prayer is the very heart of this movie because it is the prayer of every believer. “Father I love you, I just want to do Your Will. Everything is falling apart. I don't understand. What am I doing wrong? What do You want me to do? I can't bear this any longer.” Moshe's prayer is reminiscent of that of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, but while we are aware that Tevye is speaking to us as well as to God, we know that Moshe's attention is all for God, every bit of his being is concentrated in it. It is like the prayer of Job. Malli's prayer, on the other hand, is the prayer of a beloved daughter talking with her Father.
They pray for a miracle, and lo and behold the miracle happens. As soon as Moshe finishes his prayers, a friend approaches him and tells him where he can get a beautiful succah that has been abandoned by its owner who has bought a new one. And Malli, fearful to answer a knock on the door, finds an envelope pushed under the door from an anonymous benefactor containing $1000. When Moshe returns, there is great rejoicing and dancing and singing in the kitchen.
Now the stage is set for the celebration of the Feast of Booths. They have everything they need including the diamond, which Moshe has bought because a perfect citron is said to bring a male child. There is only one thing lacking to make the feast perfect and that is ushpizin, holy guests to share the feast. Needless to say, the guests arrive—two escaped prisoners, one of whom is a friend of Moshe's from the old days.
And all this is just the beginning of the movie.
From this point on, although there are ups and downs in the story, everything gradually falls apart, and throughout Moshe prays and seeks the will of God. He approaches his relationship with God as a sort of bargaining. “You ask me to do this-I do it-You bless me.” In the end he finds that what God wants from him is the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart.
Shuli Rand and Michal Batsheva Rand, who play Moshe and Malli in the film are both wonderful. Michal is especially good whether she is singing contemporary Jewish praise songs (which sound exactly like contemporary Christian praise songs) in the kitchen, serving dinner to her unconventional ushpizin, or praying that her Father will make the rent-collector go away. She had never acted before making this film, and only took the role because her husband, a Hasidic Jew and author of the screenplay, insisted for modesty's sake that she play his wife.
When I wrote about The All-of-a-Kind Family books for the 52 Authors series, I mentioned that after reading about the Feast of Booths, I always wanted my father to build us a succah. Well, that's not going to happen, but I was very glad to have a chance to peek into one and see how the holiday is celebrated—and in Jerusalem at that. The movie was filmed on location in Jerusalem and realizing that we are seeing the real life of this community adds to the enjoyment of the film.
Right before I watched Ushpizin last night, I had been reading what Dante had to say about interpreting the passage, “When from the land of Egypt Israel came,” in literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical ways, so it was a happy coincidence to see the film begin with that phrase, and think about the movie in the light of those kinds of interpretations.
—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.