As Yom Kippur ended last Wednesday night, I quickly had a bite of a bagel and downed some orange juice. I soon checked in on social media after taking a nice break from it over the holiday.
I was quickly horrified to see the news of the terrorist attack on a synagogue in Halle, Germany earlier that day and the tragic death of two innocent people, 40 year-old Jana Lange and 20 year-old Kevin S. This tragic shooting came about a year after another terrorist attack on a Jewish house of worship in Pittsburg. In between were too many acts of baseless hatred directed against minorities here and around the world.
This time I knew some of the victims who were at the synagogue in Halle and thankfully, lived to tell of their experiences. As one can imagine, they recounted how terrifying the ordeal was and to have to wait inside (and even outside) the locked synagogue for help to arrive. They also shared deep gratitude that the terrorist was not able to infiltrate the building and kill even more people. The group of Jews who started the day in a synagogue on the holiest day of the year concluded their Yom Kippur service at a local hospital instead, where they were taken to be checked for signs of shock and trauma.
One of the people I know later posted a video of several members of the group coming home from the hospital on a bus together. One person blew the shofar as many communities do to mark the end of Yom Kippur, and then the group erupted in joyous song and dance (which is another way communities conclude Yom Kippur, but this time the gratitude was obviously connected to surviving what had transpired earlier that day).
Members of the group singing together on a bus returning from the hospital after the Yom Kippur shooting in Halle, Germany
Although I understood the vast range of emotions the folks inside the synagogue must have felt throughout the day, instinctively I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable watching this video. I had just learned about everything that happened and was in the throes of feeling the three A’s: anxious, angry, and afraid. I know I could only interpret this experience as an onlooker, but I just couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to muster up any kind of will to sing and dance after living through a nightmarish experience. I’m sure there were some who didn’t.
Even if it didn’t feel natural to me as the one reading this news from afar, I recognize that mustering up song is a deep and important act of spiritual resilience in the midst of deep pain.
In no way will the Jews who were there in Halle forget this Yom Kippur – it will forever impact them as it will those who lost their loved ones that day. I pray that they soon find comfort in their grief.
But I want to recognize that this attack, like many others, can and may have already seeped into our own minds every time we walk into a visible Jewish space or publically show up as a Jewish person. Truth be told, I find myself worrying more and more about physical violence in public places, Jewish and not, and I don’t know if not being afraid is an option anymore. Is it just a matter of when it happens as opposed to if it happens at this point?
And yet, before I despair for too long, logic tells me that the world will continue to turn and we must go along with it. While we are alive and breathing, we always have the ability to shape our responses to people and events, and therefore, we can redefine these vulnerable times.
One piece of Jewish wisdom I find myself going back to again and again when I’m disheartened comes from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Father. It says,
“In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person” (Pirkei Avot 5:2).
What this means is that when our humanity is deeply challenged, we must show up as the full, beautiful, and loving humans that we are. And sometimes, that has to entail creating moments for joy regardless of what’s going on around us.
I can’t think of a better time than this week of Sukkot to lean deeply into this message. On Sukkot, we are told to dwell (eat, hang out, and if possible, sleep) in sukkot, or huts which commemorate the temporary shelters the Israelites lived in as they wandered through the desert after leaving Egypt. But the Torah also says,
“You shall rejoice in your festival … and you shall have nothing but joy.“ (Deuteronomy 16:14-15).
Joy is such a central part to Sukkot that it even goes by another name, Z’man Simchateinu, “The Season of our Rejoicing.” So, unless one is really into glamping (which I am, actually…), how is this holiday supposed to help us feel joy? And what are we celebrating exactly?
Sukkot is a holiday of rejoicing, but many may not realize that it’s about rejoicing amidst our vulnerability. More than anything, Sukkot is a festival that commemorates a period of wandering. It asks us to reenact that in-between place of knowing where we came from (or fled from) and where we’d like to be (and may soon arrive at), but not sure how long the present moment of the unknown will last or what it will consist of.
Sukkot (the huts) are made to help us embody this message by exposing us to the outside world (a “kosher” sukkah must allow us to see the stars in the sky at night, so the “roofing” which usually consists of scattered bamboo shoots, branches or corn stalks, can’t totally protect us from the rain, sun, or even bird poop). The sides are usually made with a tarp or strung pieces of cloth. They are not meant to be comfortable fortresses, let alone a real home.
On Sukkot we literally embody the temporary nature of things and remember that we are often susceptible to the elements, which may not seem so fun when it rains or is windy. We also observe the holiday with joyful prayers (accompanied by shaking a sweet smelling plant/fruit combo called a lulav and etrog), songs, and festive meals. Additionally, it is a custom to invite guests to our sukkot each day. On Sukkot, we practice facing the world openly, but together.
If Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur ask us to move inward and examine our internal lives, Sukkot asks us to shift our gaze outward.
We may not always like what we see, and we may be forced to see difficult things anew each day, but we can resolve to do so with our own humanity intact by living out our values, being in community, deepening our relationships, and finding moments to celebrate what is good in our lives. And sometimes, the outside world is breathtakingly gorgeous and we should let Mother Earth do her own healing work on us, too.
So, should we seek joy amidst our vulnerability? Absolutely. It’s our right. Can we? It’s hard, but it’s definitely possible. How should we try? By being realistic about the world we live in and still showing up as human beings, together.
We don’t need to eat every meal in a sukkah to be able to do this, nor do we have to celebrate this week with Jews alone, but what if we tried to spend each day this week creating a moment for joy, relief or celebration for other people?
That’s my plan this week and I hope you’ll join me and tell me all about it.
Wishing you a chag sameach – a truly joyous holiday.
About the author: Rabbi Ilana Zietman is GatherDC’s Community Rabbi. She loves meeting new people and exploring Jewish ideas that are relevant and alive for people in their 20’s and 30’s. When Rabbi Ilana isn’t officially Gathering, she can be found cooking in her kitchen, practicing yoga, going on hikes, desperately searching for good pizza in DC (seriously, help her find some!) and watching a lot of tv.
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