The Next Question: Sukkot, A Serious Man, and Uncertainty in America

by Britnae Purdy / October 4, 2023

In “The Next Question,” Britnae Purdy discusses how Judaism helped her find comfort and certainty in the aftermath of a shooting in Colorado for which her brother was present.

Content note: this article includes descriptions of gun violence.

Britnae and her three brothers.

Britnae and her three brothers.

Another day, another shooting in America.

On March 22, 2021, I scrolled through my phone. I was there mostly for photos of my friends’ pandemic puppies and baking experiments, and I tried to block out any distressing content. I was too exhausted to digest any news – most notably, updates regarding the mass shooting that had taken place in Atlanta just a week before. Another day, another shooting in America.

My phone dinged –  a text from my dad. I opened it up, and the words “took fire,” “killed,” and my brother’s name swirled before my eyes. The world went white for a minute. I took a breath. I re-read the message.

There’d been a shooting in Colorado. A young man walked into a grocery store in the middle of the day and opened fire with an assault rifle. My big brother, Adrian, a sergeant with Boulder Police Department, was in the line of fire.

Time turned to taffy; my cell phone became an extension of my hand. I refreshed Twitter constantly and waited for updates from my family or the news. Eventually, I learned that my brother walked away from the incident safely. He helped lead a successful tactical response that ended in the arrest of the shooter. But, my brother’s direct report, his colleague and friend, was not safe. Running into the store, he had been shot and killed, along with nine other victims.

A pin reading "Survivor: We can end gun violence" at the Gun Violence Memorial Project. The next day, I opened social media and immediately saw a post: “Another day, another mass shooting in America.” Statistically, it was true. We had over 100 mass shootings in the first 80-something days of 2021. But it wasn’t just another day for me; it was the start of a paradigm shift.

I spent that week glued to my computer, my phone, even broadcast news as press conferences played out. It’s hard to describe the feeling of seeing your brother’s face appear in photos in the Washington Post, his voice in dispatch tapes played on CNN. It felt like the world was peering straight into my chest cavity, to the place I kept my softest family memories. I felt stuck and helpless, trying to balance my desire to check in with my brother with his need to keep moving through the crisis response. At night, I watched TV. When I tried to sleep, my mind reenacted the shooting as if I was there. In these dreams, I experienced the event in first person, my own family members scattered across the grocery store.

I attended my first virtual memorial service. I beamed with pride as my brother delivered a eulogy for his friend in front of hundreds of mourners, then cried with helplessness as I realized that this could have been his memorial service. The usual post-tragedy rhetoric was everywhere, and it was suffocating. I was advised time and again to trust in God’s judgment, to praise Him for His mercy and wisdom, to keep my mind on a promised afterlife so beautiful it will eclipse all of life’s suffering. Instead of finding comfort in these words, as I might have in the past, I began experiencing a crisis of faith. I started to develop panic attacks. Uncertainty was my trigger, and uncertainty was everywhere. I couldn’t find a way to digest why my brother had returned home that day when others hadn’t. My struggle to accept the complete randomness of such obscene suffering and the inexplicable margin by which my family had been spared even greater suffering completely flummoxed me.

Comfort first came from an unexpected place – the Coen brothers.

Inspired by Elana Spivack’s story in Hey Alma, I settled in to watch A Serious Man during the High Holy Days in 2021. Larry, the main character, repeats two common refrains as his life crumples around him: “What’s going on?” and “I haven’t done anything!” A constant victim of circumstance, Larry spirals, seeks help, and spirals again, as his world becomes increasingly out of tune. Larry sits down with his rabbi for counsel, deviating slightly from his usual refrains by hollering, “Why does He make us feel the questions if He’s not gonna give us an answer?” The wise rabbi in the scene shrugs: “He hasn’t told me.”

A poem from the Gun Violence Memorial Project.

The Gun Violence Memorial Project at The Building Museum.

Why was my brother unhurt? Despite his safety, why did I feel like I was mourning a loss? Why do we have such an issue with guns in the US? How do I feel about the death penalty in this case? Could I get through a day at the office without ducking into the restroom to gulp air and smother tears in a stall? I was feeling all the questions, and I was sure that the lack of answers was my own fault.

Growing up, I was taught not to ask questions. Unless morality was at stake, questioning authority was verboten. And to question life’s circumstances? That was to question God’s choices, and questioning God’s choices was a sin, a lack of faith, the religious equivalent of a spoiled kid complaining over her birthday presents.

I had started exploring Judaism during the pandemic lockdown and, as I continued to learn, I started noticing the questions. More often than not, there was a gap between the end of the question and the start of an answer: a space of ambiguity and interpretation. The moment between Indiana Jones stepping off the edge and the optical-illusioned path appearing underneath him.

A black and white photo of a family gathering during the pandemic.

Britnae and her family at a holiday gathering.

Spivack writes in Hey Alma: “The uncertainty of whether anything has meaning (at least in the movie’s context) is terrifying, but also is sort of the best we can get… The fact is, shit happens, and there’s not always a clear reason for it.” Judaism gave me permission to acknowledge the shit that happens in life, and that felt revolutionary.

Quite suddenly, I fell in love with the High Holy Days, the seemingly contradictory emulsion of celebrating life and fearing death. The Unetanneh Tokef (okay, okay, Leonard Cohen’s version), in particular, aligned with my yearning to understand that the ultimate decision of who makes it to the next day was not mine, that danger walked closely to my loved ones each day and no amount of prayer, nor deeds, nor diligently meeting deadlines at work could change that.

A similar learning moment came during GatherDC’s 2021 High Holidays Deep Dive. Entering the class, I didn’t have a great understanding of Sukkot – basically, I was aware that the holiday involved exotic lemons and backyard camping. However, discussing the sukkah, Rabbi Ilana introduced us to a passage by Rabbi Alan Lew:

This is not a house; it is the bare outline of a house…It exposes the idea of a house as an illusion. The idea of a house is that it gives us security, shelter, haven from the storm. But no house can really offer us this. No building of wood and stone can ever afford us protection from the disorder that is always lurking around us. In the sukkah, a house that is open to the world, a house that freely acknowledges that it cannot be the basis of our security, we let go of this need. The illusion of protection falls away, and suddenly we are flush with our life, feeling our life, following our life, doing its dance, one step after another.

I realized I was not a spoiled child, I was not a broken woman. I was a home with a scant roof, capable of great joy and great fear at the same time. Through Judaism’s lens, I found myself understanding questions as an act of faith. Uncertainty was a constant; railing to the skies for an answer that would never come was a painful, but undoubtable, sign of being alive. My confusion, my anger, my sadness was human, and my humanity was part of God.

Now, two years after the shooting that sent my life spiraling, I’m struggling to write a snappy conclusion for this piece. Now that I’m in a mentally healthier place, I’m encouraged by the words of the Pirkei Avot: You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” I take small steps to advocate, personally and politically, for a safer and more loving world. I connect with my family more. Slowly, my panic attacks have dwindled. I value the comforting ambiguity of Jewish thought that has brought generations through both the most challenging and most joyous of times. With Judaism, with life, there isn’t really a conclusion – just the next question, and something about the consistency of change is soothing. My experience, though not something I’d wish on anyone else, has helped me embrace the impermanence and uncertainty of life as a gift, rather than something to fear.

Britnae at her wedding with her brothers.

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