WASHINGTON — Forsaking homes that keep out the rain, Jews around the world this week are instead inviting guests into thatched roofed huts whose architecture is starlight. It is the harvest festival of Sukkot, which is known as z’man simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing.
But in the wake of last week’s shooting rampage at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., I am focused instead on another of the holiday’s themes: impermanence. Sukkot must be about temporary structures allowing for views of the stars through our unsecured roofs. The fragility of structures, places and lives is self-evident as we look up through the openings between the branches.
During this holiday, we remember how God protected us in the wilderness and pray for protection today. Protect our crops. Renew the earth. Send the rain. Save humans, flocks, and soil. Help us throughout the seasons.
In Washington, this year feels off to a particularly precarious start, with last week’s Navy Yard incident that uniquely demonstrated our fragility and the vulnerability of the season. About two miles from my office, at a highly guarded military base, a gunman passed through security with shotgun and began shooting. Thirteen people died, three more were wounded.
I was particularly moved by this incident, both for the proximity and the feeling of frequency. Of the 12 most deadly shootings in the United States, half have occurred in the last six years. They have been in schools, theaters, houses of worship, public gatherings and military bases.
One of those, the shooting at Virginia Tech, is our nation’s worst with a total of 33 lives cut short.
Yet despite these horrific incidents and the daily death toll, the number of guns in America continues to reach new peaks while the system for ensuring they stay out of the wrong hands is clearly broken. About 90 percent of Americans support new legislation, such as universal background checks, but Congress steadfastly refuses to act.
Our Constitution guarantees the individual right to own a firearm, but it does not condemn us to the scourge of gun violence. Registered gun dealers are required to perform background checks, but each year, 40 percent of all gun sales are done without a background check, either at a gun show, through a private sale or even online. It is estimated that 80 percent of criminals obtain their weapons through this loophole. But when presented with a bill to require background checks for almost all gun purchases, the Senate rejected it. The House of Representatives ignored it.
There is no perfect guarantee of safety, but there is much more that can be done. In the days after the shooting in Newtown when 27 were killed (the second deadliest in our history), the Jewish Council for Public Affairs called for a comprehensive approach to prevent gun violence. That approach addressed background checks before selling guns and ammunition, mental health care and violence in the media in a petition signed by 20,000 individuals. A policy resolution calling for the same comprehensive measures was adopted by the JCPA membership at its annual plenum this past spring.
As summer now turns to fall, we celebrate Sukkot and are reminded of our fragility. We cannot build structures that keep out all harm and always keep us safe, but we can do more to protect ourselves.
(Jared Feldman is vice president and Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.)