Religious Life

A Sukkah Response to Las Vegas – Sukkot 5778

A Sukkah Response to Las Vegas
Sukkot 5778 • Beth El Synagogue
Rabbi Alexander Davis

If only it had been an Islamic terrorist, I keep saying to myself. I am embarrassed to say that. But it is the thought that keeps going through my mind. Because if it had been an Islamic terrorist, then at least we could say to ourselves, “they died as proud Americans.”

It would be so much easier if was because of religion. It would be easier if it was a political gripe. If was a mental illness or a vendetta against an ex-girlfriend, it would be just a little bit easier. But for right now, we just don’t know. We don’t know why Stephen Paddok gunned down 58 people and shot another 527. And that makes this shooting not only heartbreaking but senseless. I know. I know. It is senseless either way. But with no motivation, it feels even more meaningless.

At least if we had a why, we might begin to understand. If we had some kind of reason, we could cast blame. If we knew the motivation, we might fashion a response. Or we might find a way to make something good come out of something awful.

But in the absence of a reason, hevel hahavelim hakol havel, even this cruel act is utterly in vain. And in the absence of any rhyme or reason, we grieve in free fall with nothing to grab on to slow the descent of sorrow.

Commentators, politicians, yes even clergy have responded to this latest mass shooting in ways all too familiar- with vigils, and tributes, and calls for increased gun control and calls against gun control. I have my feelings when it comes to policy issues. But for now, I want to echo what others have said more eloquently that me: I don’t care what we do. But we’ve got to do something. Because doing nothing, is killing us- literally.

Just a week ago, we prayed over and over again, zokhreinu l’chayim. God, remember us for life. If we mean these but we do nothing to realize our prayers, our prayers are in vein because God won’t solve problem. We must. If God is melekh hafetz b’chayim, One who cherishes life, but we don’t do everything in our power to uphold our end of the bargain, we are failing ourselves and failing God.

As Jews, we are fond toasting “l’chayim/to life” and of quoting “choose life.” But these are empty if they are not accompanied by action. God isn’t interested in words, heartfelt though they may be, if they don’t inspire real efforts to stop the plague of gun violence.

We claim to venerate a Torah that commands us “do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” a Torah that teaches us the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, of saving a life. But if we throw our hands up and say, “well, there are always going to be crazy people out there,” or if we cry tears of powerlessness saying, “well, what can I do,” we profane the Torah and insult God who believes in us, who has higher hopes and expectations of us and who gave us Torat Chayim, the Torah of Life.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Reform movement said it well: “We cannot say this mass shooting was “unbelievable.” It is all too believable. We cannot say there that there are “no words” to express our grief and our outrage. We must find the words, and we must not stop saying them and acting on them until we stop this plague of gun violence that has gripped our nation for far too long.”

So what can you do? If you feel we need stricter gun regulations, then do something about it. Vote in people who agree with you and lobby for it. If you feel the answer is increased security or mental health support, do something about it.

Vote, organize, sign petitions, donate and learn. Those of you who heard about our new learning initiative, Community Learning @ The Well may have seen that one of our topics of learning is gun safety and gun violence protection. In fact, even before this mass shooting, a small group has been working on developing programming. We want to understand the attraction some people have to guns so we will be going to a firing range. We want to learn about gun safety in the home. We want to better understand perspectives on today’s policy issues so will be inviting representatives from Protect MN as well as from the NRA to present to us. We want to learn how to have difficult conversations and of course, learn Jewish perspectives on these critical issues. In the end, we may draw different conclusions on solutions. But hopefully, we will understand the issues more, understand each other more and be motivated to get involved more.

I want to turn our attention to Sukkot. I spoke about lobbying and learning. For us today marking our own harvest festival, there can be one additional response. It sounds antithetical and maybe even inappropriate at first. But I believe we must answer senseless loss with senseless joy. In the face of 58 senseless murders we might be tempted to say to ourselves, “we have no right to rejoice at this time. We cannot find joy now.”

But I’d suggest that it is davka in joy that we might find a way forward. We read in the Torah, “v’haita ach sameiach.” On Sukkot we are commanded to rejoice and be happy, v’haita ach sameiach (Deut 16:15). The medieval Italian commentator, the Sforno explains it to mean, “enter a state of pure joy in which pain has no place, tiheyeh semeaich bilvad v’shelo yitarbev yitzavon.”

Once upon a time, the Sanzer Rebbe did just that. Reb Chayim of Sanzer who lived in 19th century Poland was not a healthy man. Throughout his life, he had health problems that seemed to have no cure. In particular, he had a problem with his foot. Finally, it got so bad, he could hardly walk. So he went to a doctor.

“I am afraid this will require surgery,” the doctor said. “But don’t worry. You won’t feel a thing. I’ll give you an injection to put you asleep.”

“I don’t want an injection,” the Sanzer insisted. “You do your thing with the operation and I’ll take care of the pain on my own. But you must promise me one thing, “If I don’t open my eyes right away after the surgery, please don’t disturb me. I may lie there for a long time but just leave me. You promise?

The doctor tried to argue with him. But Reb Chayim was adamant so the doctor agreed.

On the day of the surgery, the Sanzer was wheeled into the operating room. He was put on the table and immediately closed his eyes. The procedure took several hours and the whole time, the Sanzer didn’t move a muscle. He never made a sound.

Finally, the operation was over. But the Sanzer didn’t move. He just kept lying there absolutely still with his eyes closed. The doctor started to get worried. He wanted to check on the Sanzer. But the Sanzer’s children answered, “you must do what you promised.”

The rebbe lay motionless for four more hours. Then all of a sudden, he opened his eyes. “So how’d it go?” he asked the doctor.

“It went fine. Better than expected. But I have to ask you, with no disrespect, what did you do and why did you lie there so long?”

The Sanzer smiled. “Let me tell you doctor, my teacher, the Heilige Ropschitzer taught me a secret, how to feel pure joy. You know in olam hazeh, in this world, we live in a world of reasons. There’s a reason for pain. And there also has to be a reason for joy. The only way we can feel simcha in this world is for something to happen to us to make us feel happy.

From the holy Ropschitzer, I learned how to receive the bliss of olam haba pure joy that needs no reason. Of course, this type of joy is very difficult to attain and I can’t always reach it. But when you told me I’d experience a lot of pain, I concentrated very hard and went to a place of pure ecstasy where there is no such thing as pain. So, I felt nothing during the operation. But that level of joy is so exalted; it took me a while to make myself leave it and come back to this world again.”

The Sanzer entered a state in which his joy helped him endure his pain. And in the process, he teaches us that one prescription for pain relief is an even greater dose of unconditional joy. Through joy the Sanzer found healing. And so must we. For only one who truly rejoices and celebrates life, is willing to fight to protect life.

We may learn a reason for Las Vegas in the coming days. We may never know. But on this Sukkot, it is a mitzvah to rejoice. It is a commandment to be happy not just because we have a bat mitzvah, not just because we have a family and community. But just because. The Torah commands, v’samachata b’chagech rejoice over the holiday, v’hayita ach sameiach rejoice in the face of pain, rejoice in spite of the pain, rejoice for no reason at all.