Prayer in Ushpizin

April 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

Communication is essential. In the communication discipline, there is a maxim, “You are never not communicating.” At every point in time, through words, facial expressions and body language we are communicating and although we have all this practice at communication it still is one of the hardest and most convoluted things in our existence. And that’s just when talking to other humans. Communication is even more difficult when relegated to the realm of the supernatural. How do we talk to God, who we can’t see and from whom we hardly ever receive verbal reciprocation?

I know that my dialogue with God is often fraught with distractions and other concerns because of the lack of a physical presence. God sometimes doesn’t seem as real as my friends around me or even the people I walk past in my everyday life. One of the ways I’ve learned to overcome this in small ways is by following the example of those who pray like God is sitting right next to them. I think that these examples are crucial to helping us become people who better communicate with others and with God.

One such example is Ushpizin (Dar, 2004), an Israeli film, that follows Moshe, a rabbi, and his wife, Mali, during the Jewish holiday of Succoth as they welcome unexpected ushpizin (guests) to their house. There are three specific scenes I want to focus on that provides some stunning examples of prayer that bleeds emotion and authenticity.

Moshe and Mali don’t have any money to pay their bills let alone celebrate the holiday that is approaching. Distraught by this possibility they do the only thing they can: pray. Moshe leaves the house and goes to a park. He sits down on the bench and begins conversing with God in honest, down-to-earth terms. As his prayer continues, his emotions continue to rise as he claps his hands and eventually lets out a heart-rending cry. While he is praying, through the magic of parallel editing, we see God answering his prayer before he has concluded it by sending Moshe and Mali a gift of 1,000 dollars.

Moshe and Mali’s reaction to this gift is one of overwhelming joy. They begin to dance and sing to the Lord, praising Him for the gift. The joy in this scene is palpable and once again there is a sense of real connection to God with Moshe using “Abba” to address God from the position of a son. Once again we see a very real belief in a God who breaks into everyday life. In the Christian culture I inhabit in America, a reaction like theirs is something unusual and not seen very often. Their reaction makes me question where that joy and intense belief in God’s power is in my faith.

The final scene that sticks out to me is essentially the climax of the film. The unexpected guests have driven Mali away by their behavior and what they have brought out in Moshe. His guests have also just used a very precious lemon, which Moshe purchased for 1,000 shekels, as salad dressing. This time, instead of succumbing to his anger, like he has previously, Moshe runs from his guests. He finally stops running, out of breath, in a grove of trees and unloads his anger on God. There are tears and screams. As he prays, I can almost imagine a Psalmist in this position, laying his soul out before God. And there is Moshe, lying prostrate on the ground, pleading for God’s mercy. I’m not sure I’ve ever bared my soul to God in that manner.

Like before, God hears Moshe’s prayer and brings his wife back to him. This is not a God that is removed from his Creation, but One working in and through His people, showing them grace and mercy. Ushpizin, as you might expect from a film centered on a Jewish rabbi, is profoundly spiritual and delivers some beautiful portraits of prayer. Like I’ve learned from those who have gone before me, I hope to learn from the picture painted by this wonderful film.


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