Sukkot, intentional insecurity, and Las Vegas

This morning, I woke up physically and emotionally exhausted, drained from the marathon that is Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. I have not yet come down from the high of leading my congregation on these most holy of days, and the liturgical themes, the melodies, and the Shofar blasts that were presented so beautiful by our Cantor, still ring in my head. This morning, unlike the Shofar blasts that brought me in to the High Holiday season, gun blasts brought me out of my post Yom Kippur high/stupor when I awoke to news of the largest mass shooting in modern American history overnight in Las Vegas.

Much of what has been written so far by colleagues in the Jewish community in response to the shooting has justifiably focused on themes from Yom Kippur. My own facebook post this morning was a play on the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, saying “Who by (gun)fire”. Comments from congregants and community members expressed dismay, sadness, and a connection to the liturgical link I made. I do think, though, that there is a more appropriate link in the Jewish calendar, and that link is Sukkot.

Yom Kippur creates a container for us to cleanse our souls from our transgressions. We atone and we walk away cleansed, renewed, and joyous at the release we feel from our previous misdeeds. We acknowledge our shortcomings on Yom Kippur. Later, we say that “tshuva (repentence), tfila (prayer), and tzedakah (charity)” will lessen the severity of God’s decrees against us.

Sadly, neither tshuva, tfila, or tzedakah will lessen the severity of this event. Nor will they prevent an event like this in the future.

In retrospect, the more appropriate response would have been for me to focus on Sukkot. Coming off of the joy that comes from being cleansed of transgression on Yom Kippur, we almost immediately head outside in to nature, in to portable huts, called Sukkot. We eat our meals and largely take up residence in these fairly flimsy accommodations, connecting us to both our agricultural past, and to our fragile present and future.

The Sukkah is intentionally delicate. It is precisely now when we are at our most pure, ideally our most secure, that we must acknowledge our own human fragility. We don’t just simply note it, we literally leave our homes and live it. Fulfilling the mitzvah of dwelling in the Sukkah is more than a nod to our agricultural past, it is a deliberately sobering act that reminds us that no matter how good or pure we think we are, our lives and the lives of those around us, are fragile. The fragility of the Sukkah reminds us to not be so confident, to not be so secure. Like the walls of the Sukkah that reconstructed each year, security must be actively built and rebuilt anew, and the walls that we construct to ensure our security are not as strong as we like to think. We are further commanded to invite ushpizin, guests, in to our Sukkot, in to our fragile dwelling places. Only through bringing people together around a common cause can our Sukkot feel, and hopefully become, more secure.

On the Shabbat during Sukkot, we read from Ecclesiastes, who famously said, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” If we rely on the tshuva, tfila, and tzedakah of Yom Kippur to end the violence and bring us security, all will be, in fact, vanity. If we gather ourselves together, acknowledge our own fragility, and take decisive action as a united citizenry to move towards a more secure world, all of the lives lost in Las Vegas will not be a “vanity of vanities.”

About the Author
Rabbi Nathan Weiner is the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Marlton, NJ. He is a 2016 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Rabbi Nathan has previously served as the President of the Tri-County Board of Jewish Clergy. He currently serves as a board member of the Rabbis and Cantors Retirement Plan, and the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill, NJ.