It’s everyone’s worst nightmare. Our spouse, child, sibling, parent or friend is missing, and we don’t know if they are dead or alive. Families in Las Vegas are living this nightmare right now, moving through hospitals, hoping to find their loved ones and praying that “missing” does not mean an unidentified body.
On Oct. 2, Rabba Ramie Smith and I drove to Las Vegas to be a source of support wherever we were needed after the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. We donated food and water — sponsored by Yeshivat Maharat, the first school to ordain Jewish Orthodox female spiritual leaders, from which we both graduated — to a local church that delivered truckloads of supplies to victims, their families and local volunteers and first responders. We participated in a prayer vigil for people of all faiths. And we provided pastoral care for families waiting to hear from authorities about the fate of their loved ones, living this nightmare.
Local police, trauma and grief counselors, chaplains and lay volunteers are doing the holy and excruciating work of walking families through this horrific time, bringing a little bit of light into immense darkness. We are grateful for their service and can and should explore ways to also be of support with them.
But after reading the news, donating things such as food, water, blood and money, and even volunteering, how do we personally process the reality of loss and terror in the world? And especially right now, how do we as Jews celebrate Sukkot, the holiday of prescribed joy, when it seems that our year has started with tragedy?
I believe we can begin to find answers, resilience and even hope when we focus on the sukkah. The sukkah is a place we invite guests (ushpizin), a physical representation of opening our tents, like Abraham and Sarah, to connect with others. At this time of year, God tells us we cannot stay in our homes and avoid the world, we cannot be insular. We have to see our family as bigger than it usually is. Instead, we build a space that is naturally open, that welcomes others to enter, which means bringing strangers into our hearts. This act creates the simcha (joy) of this season because it unites us, making us love one another and see the goodness and Godliness in one another. Joy is an outgrowth of generosity, love and gratitude.
“We are hurt, but we will never be broken. In Vegas, we welcome people from around the world to our home every day. This makes it more horrifying that one of us — a local — did this. Some people think Vegas is a filthy place. But that’s not what it is. It’s my home and it’s hospitality. We will still continue to welcome people. We are strong. People here help each other. This is the Las Vegas that I love. This it the America I love.”
I heard these words from a woman who opened her restaurant in the middle of the night to survivors of the shooting who had nowhere else to go. She made her space — her home — everyone’s home.
This is the message of the sukkah. It is a message we desperately need at times when we would otherwise be isolated, lost and divided — a reality we see right now far too often. It is the response God gave us — the tool He equipped us with — for moments like this when we face unfathomable suffering and tragedy caused by human hatred.
This year, we must respond to the reality of terror, to the horrors of the shooting in Las Vegas, davka by celebrating Sukkot. The sukkah answers loss, terror and tragedy with love, warmth and welcoming arms. It is the antithesis to evil and, God-willing, it will end the nightmare.
This year, as we enter into the sukkah, may God give us the strength and courage to open our tents to those in need, the inspiration and drive to volunteer or donate to efforts supporting the victims and families of Las Vegas, and the joy to be people who make our home everyone’s home.
RABBANIT ALISSA THOMAS-NEWBORN is a member of the spiritual leadership team at B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Los Angeles. Read more about her visit to Las Vegas after the shooting at our partner site JTA.