What Blade Runner Can Teach Us About Sukkot
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Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Do Sukkahs Dream of Electric Ushpizin?

Much of the miraculous happenings in Jewish lore seem as though they were plucked from a science fiction novel. You’ve got anti-gravitational vehicles like Ezekiel's vision of the heavenly chariot and straight up robots when it comes to the Golem of Prague. Of course, the Bible and Kabbalah came before the likes of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still draw comparisons between two branches of writing that some might say are apples and oranges. Given that Sukkot and the release of Blade Runner 2049 are both coinciding this week, I decided to offer up a few thoughts on the unlikely festive lesson we can glean from the film franchise.

Sukkot or, as most people call it, “Why do you build those little huts on your front lawn?” Whichever moniker you choose for the festival, it’s a time to sit outside in said huts and enjoy a meal with family and friends as if you have all gone camping, an action that has double significance. The first reason we build sukkahs, covering/decorating them with branches and wax fruit, is to celebrate the gathering of the harvest; sounds like something that would be at home in a Shirley Jackson story, but it’s all innocuous, I assure you. The second significance of building booths is to recreate the protection God granted to the Jews after they left Egypt in the form of pillars of smoke and fire, which covered the desert-wandering people on all sides.

So, what does this unique holiday have to do with the sequel to a 1982 neo-noir sci-fi classic? To answer that, let us focus on another aspect of Sukkot: The kabbalistic minhag of the seven Ushpizin, an Aramaic word for “Guests.” More frankly, it is said that the souls of seven great Jewish leaders are drawn to one’s sukkah on each night of the festival, with “leaders” referring to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David.

For those not familiar with Blade Runner, the original film takes place in a dystopian future where life-like androids—“replicants”—are created to do the work of humankind, mainly working as servants or workers in the inhospitable vacuum of space on off-world colonies. The film tells the story of cop Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who is tasked with hunting down and “retiring” five rogue replicants who have returned to earth. However, there are actually two more replicants involved with the story, Mary (who is only really mentioned in passing, but stick with me here) and Rachael, bringing the tally up to a total of seven with the “Rick Deckard is also a Replicant” theory notwithstanding.

Just like that, we’ve got a pair of instances that involve seven distinctive “visitors,” but it is the incongruities between the two that can have an important impact on the way we view this holiday. Sukkot is about returning to a simpler form of existence outside in the wilderness just as Blade Runner is about the simple fragility of what it means to be a human being. Place them side-by-side and you’ve got nature versus technology.

In the case of Rick Deckard, his seven electric Tyrell Corp.-issued “Ushpizin” are mostly unwanted, nuisances of the modern age that he must seek out and kill. There’s nothing joyful attributed to these guests, except the difficulty of work and distraction. Despite being released long before the omnipresence of the Internet and smartphones, “Blade Runner” proves to be a prescient parable for modern times. Just because technology can make our lives infinitely easier, doesn’t mean it is also the best thing for us. Translation: Social media and staring down at one’s iPhone screen has all but done away with traditional face-to-face communication. Even though it’s faster to type an emoji, you still need to express actual emotion. To paraphrase, Mr. Deckard, these modern conveniences can either be a benefit or a hazard.

Then, you’ve got Sukkot on the other end of the spectrum where you can actively get away from the technology ruling over your life by simply walking into the great outdoors and celebrating the natural bounty of the land. Not only that. You’ve also got seven Ushpizin who will come straight you as you lounge around celebrating. There’s no work or nuisance involved, unless you count building the sukkah, of course. They are very much welcome in your presence.

Blade Runner is truly iconic and deserves to be hailed as so, but it is also quite bleak. The film’s overarching theme essentially posits that the rapid advancement of technology will eventually leave humanity in the dust to the point where we won’t be able to tell ourselves apart from the machines.

That being said, when you leave your phone inside and sit down to a sumptuous meal in the sukkah for the first time in a year, don’t think of it as sitting down next to seven long-gone, invisible Jewish leaders. Rather, think of it as a return to what it means to be alive. What it means to be human.

Time to eat. 

Blade Runner

Sukkot

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