Inviting (science) fictional ushpizin
October 09, 2014
There's a Jewish custom of inviting ushpizin, holy guests, into the sukkah each night. In the most traditional paradigm one invites seven (male) Biblical figures; in a more contemporary paradigm one invites Biblical figures of both genders. Each of the invited guests represents or channels a particular mystical energy, so in calling on that figure to invite them to one's sukkah, one is also inviting that figure's qualities to flow into the sukkah and into one's life.
For instance, on the first night it's traditional to call on Abraham. In kabbalah, Abraham is connected with the sefirah (divine quality) of chesed, overflowing lovingkindness. On the second night, one would call on Isaac, who is associated with gevurah, boundaried strength. (And so on.) Here's a lovely Seder Ushpizata by Rabbi David Seidenberg -- a liturgy for inviting and calling-upon these incorporeal guests and their holy qualities. And here's a fantastic infographic on the ushpizin, which lists the traditional (male) ushpizin, an alternative list of female ushpizot, and even a set of Hasidic figures who can be mapped to the seven nights of the festival.
Shortly before the holiday began I found myself pondering aloud on Twitter how one might map these seven kabbalistic qualities to characters from Firefly. The tweet drew enough response that I figured it was worth expanding into a post! If one wanted to welcome the crew of Serenity on all seven nights of Sukkot, in what order would they be called-on, and what qualities would we ask them to channel for us?
(If you are not a fan of Joss Whedon's tragically short-lived "space western" Firefly, the remainder of this post may hold limited appeal for you. No disrespect is intended, in this bit of whimsical geekery, to the traditional custom of inviting Biblical ushpizin.)
Here are the answers I came up with:
Chesed, lovingkindness - Kaylee Frye. It's not a stretch to see Kaylee as an avatar of chesed. She's kind, generous, sweet, and loving. And I can see her as a face of hospitality, as was Abraham (with his tent open on all sides / to all comers.) In the very first episode we see her welcoming Simon Tam and Shepherd Book aboard. Surely, like Abraham, Kaylee would welcome anyone into her home / onto her ship. On the first night of Sukkot, we would invite Kaylee to bring lovingkindness into the sukkah.
Gevurah, boundaried strength - Malcolm Reynolds. It was gevurah that got Mal through the war and it's gevurah which keeps him at the helm. He has to be strong in order to deal with some of the unsavory characters with whom they have to work. Sometimes it seems as though he thinks he can keep the ship flying by sheer effort of will. It's also possible that he's right about that -- as long as he's not doing it alone; he needs the other qualities manifested by the rest of the crew. On the second night of Sukkot, we would invite Mal to bring strength into the sukkah.
Tiferet, harmony / balance - Inara Serra. I think about her lighting incense at the altar in the Companion training house, ritualistically pouring tea for her guests, creating sacred space in her shuttle through tapestries which obscure its gunmetal functionality. These are acts which create harmony around her. Kabbalistically, tiferet is a balance of chesed and gevurah, and I can see Inara having both some of Kaylee's lovingkindness and Mal's strength. On the third night of Sukkot, we would invite Inara to bring harmony into the sukkah.
Netzach, endurance - Zoe Washburne. Zoe served as a Browncoat, a fighter in the rebellion against the hegemonic Alliance, and the battle of Serenity Valley required netzach aplenty. Zoe has no shortage of steely-eyed resolve. And, of course I think of Zoe at the end of the film Serenity, and I think: come what may, Zoe endures. On the fourth night of Sukkot, we would invite Zoe to bring endurance into the sukkah.
Hod, humility / splendor -- Shepherd Book. Hod is an unusual mixture of regal presence and humility, and the good Shepherd is a fine avatar for that combination. Sometimes we see his humble simplicity, when he's inhabiting the role of the unassuming Shepherd, presiding over the dinner table; sometimes we see hints of his splendor, as when the show offered tantalizing glimpses of his past. He manages to embody both of these qualities at once. On the fifth night of Sukkot, we would invite Shepherd Book to bring humble splendor into the sukkah.
Yesod, foundation - Wash Washburne. While some would interpret Yesod as generativity or sexuality (in which case perhaps Inara would be a better choice), I like to think of Yesod as what keeps us rooted. Although it was his job to pilot Serenity through air and space, Wash kept the crew emotionally grounded. Some interpreters connect yesod with peacefulness, and it's notable that Wash wasn't a soldier -- he comes from the side of peace. On the sixth night of Sukkot, we would invite Wash to bring groundedness into the sukkah.
Malkhut, sovereignty / nobility - River Tam. Malkhut is also called Shekhinah, and I can see River with her fierce balletic grace as an avatar of the divine feminine. Perhaps in her pre-Miranda anguish she represents the exiled Shekhinah, distant from her own wholeness -- and after unearthing the injustice done to the inhabitants of that planet she's able to integrate, immanence balancing with transcendence. On the seventh night of Sukkot, we would invite River to bring the presence of Shekhinah into the sukkah.
Of course, there are nine characters aboard Serenity and only seven of these "lower" sefirot; I've left Jayne Cobb and Simon Tam off the list. But in looking at how the characters map to the sefirot, I'm struck by the range of their emotional and spiritual qualities. Their differences are complementary. I suspect that's part of why they make such a successful crew. Tradition teaches that when we bring together the qualities of all seven lower sefirot, we glimpse a reality-map of the balance of divinity. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. The same is true, I think, for this set of characters and the qualities they embody: they are more, together, than the sum of their individual parts.
Would you map them differently? Or have you ever invited other literary or televisual characters into your sukkah? (Joy Fleisig tweeted me a link to a graphic mapping Harry Potter characters to the seven ushpizin, so I know I'm not the only one who's had this kind of nutty idea -- though I'm not sure I agree with all of the choices in that graphic; I wouldn't have included Voldemort at all, as he is not the sort of personage I would want to invite into my sukkah, even metaphorically.) Thoughts on the intersection of ushpizin and fandom? Tweet me at @velveteenrabbi or leave a note in comments...