RABBI’S OCTOBER MESSAGE:
As I am writing this note, we have just completed our observance of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and are anticipating the upcoming festival days of Sukkot. This is certain to be “z’man simchateinu,” a time of our joy. Already I feel a deep sense of joy at everything our community has accomplished these past few months. Spending so many hours together with so many of you in prayer and t’shuvah has helped me to get to know you at a deeper level. This important spiritual work has left me feeling a strong sense of connection to you and to the Divine, as well as a sense of renewal and dedication to our broader mission to build bonds of caring and connection in the coming year.
Importantly, we had many visitors join us during these holidays. Please take time to reach out to the new faces you see in the coming weeks at community activities and spiritual gatherings. Religious and Hebrew schools have also started back up with a number of new families, and it is exciting for me to see so many of our children and young adults active and engaged. I was so excited this week when one of our youngest attendees said “I love being Jewish. It’s so much fun!” Nothing could make a Rabbi happier!
Many of you also made commitments over the Yamim Noraim to become involved in new and ongoing activities at the synagogue during the upcoming New Year. Many new programs, activities and spiritual and educational events are being planned, so keep an eye on the calendar.
Now for a brief word about Sukkot. We actually read a story about a Sukkah during Yom Kippur afternoon services. After the prophet Jonah warned the people of Nineveh to repent from their evil ways, he erected a tiny Sukkah on a hillside near the city, from which he expected to sit back and watch G-d destroy the city. The whole city actually had already repented, which would have made Jonah the most successful prophet ever, except for one thing. His harsh judgement of others didn’t allow him to believe that G-d would forgive the people. And the Sukkah Jonah built was not kosher; the s’chach was not detached from the ground as it should have been but was a living poisonous plant that was destroyed in a day by a mere worm. Jonah’s Sukkah was a pious, harsh and judgmental sukkah, only big enough for one person’s world-view. There was no room for forgiveness, community, or for the joyful experience of G-d’s mercy and protection. Jonah was living with a “small-sukkah” theology.
Contrast that with the Sukkot we erect: temporary dwellings that recognize the fragility of life and the joy of total dependence on the Divine. For a week we pretend that our temporary dwelling is our permanent home and that our permanent homes are only temporary. We invite others to dwell with us in the cool fall air, totally exposed to the elements and to our exchanges with each other. Our ancestors say that the words from Vayikra 23:42 “… seven days all citizens of Israel will dwell in sukkot…” actually means that for these seven days our sukkot should be big enough for everyone in the community!
An ancient rabbinic text in our tradition also records a sukkah that was once built in Jerusalem by a prominent individual that, like Jonah’s Sukkah, also was technically not Kosher. It was built with walls that exceeded the maximum height specifications for a Kosher Sukkah. On the other hand, the individual who built this Sukkah was a Torah scholar, and also very generous and inclusive, reaching out to others in community and donated significant tzedakah and food to support the Jewish people during periods of famine and poverty. Perhaps because of this generosity and care, some of the sages of the time recognized this particular “non-kosher” sukkah as…. kosher!!! May we all continue into the new year with “Large-sukkah mentality!”
RABBI’S SEPTEMBER MESSAGE:
As I am writing this note, the High Holidays are fast-approaching. We will gather for
Slichot prayers on Saturday evening, Sept. 1st, the first time that many Jews begin thinking in
earnest about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For many, Slichot marks the first hearing of the
poignant melodies associated with our High Holiday penitential prayers. On the other hand, our
sages set aside the whole month of Elul preceding Rosh Hashanah for deep introspection
and preparation, and for intentionally regretting our mistakes and misdeeds and turning
ourselves around and back towards the sacred.
During every day of this month we have been thinking about repentance while listening to the
startling and wailing sounds of the shofar. Why the shofar, I ask myself? Couldn’t we as a Jewish
people have come up with a more perfect-sounding instrument to mark the joy of Rosh Hashanah?
Similar to a bugle, this crude instrument made from a Ram’s horn lacks a musical mechanism for
accurate pitch-control, and the quality of its sound is supposed to be raw and jarring. The output
varies depending on the input of the person blowing. Even for an expert shofar-blower, there is a
lot of room for imperfection of sound, and for contemplating the similarity to the imperfections in
Sounds that need to be heard are sometimes stifled, weak, and groaning. Sometimes a significant
effort fails to achieve the desired result. At other times, we blow spontaneously, and our
constitution is relaxed and free, and the sound is on-point and miraculously strong, jubilant and
The series of shofar sounds also play a role in the emotional impact the Shofar has on us. We start
with one long sound, Tekiah. We start out thinking we are whole, but something unexpected happens
to us. The initial long blast jars us entirely out of our complacency. We realize suddenly that we
cannot continue living the way we have been up until now, and the urgency of the blast pushes us to
break things down: to re-evaluate our choices and our life-path… before it’s too late.
Next comes Shevarim: three medium, wailing notes. These sounds can be compared to a broken heart
once we’ve recognized our shortcomings and our wasted opportunities in the past year. We cry out as
we yearn to free ourselves from past ways of thinking… to make way for new opportunities in the
future… to become a truly changed individual and community.
Then we hear the sounds of Truah: nine quick staccato blasts. Like the final alarm of an alarm
clock: we know the time is waning and we scramble to motivate ourselves to make the necessary
changes, drawing perilously close to complete brokenness. It’s our last opportunity to set the plan
of action: What is our revised vision of our new “Best Selves”, our best Beth Israel, our best
Roanoke Jewish community? Are we going to make real changes with the greatest potential to make a
difference? And finally…
…Tekiah Gedolah: one long tekiah. If we’ve done the hard work of introspection, the final long
blast on Yom Kippor should be a great moment of joy. I am looking forward to sharing this difficult
work together in our community as we listen with extra kavanah this year for the shofar sounds, a
listening that has great potential to heal us and to change us all for the better.
L ‘Shanah Tovah U’Metukah! May we all have a Good and Sweet New Year!
Rabbi Jama Purser
RABBI’S AUGUST MESSAGE :
As I am writing this note, our community has just turned the corner from our annual
three-week period of mourning for the loss of the first and second Temples. From the
17th of Tammuz until Tisha B’Av, we’ve explored the relationship between two Biblical words
that without vowels are spelled alike in our Torah: Ayeka – Where are you? And Eicha – How did this
happen to me/us? The similarity in the Hebrew spelling encourages us to reflect on the
thematic connection. Perhaps this past period in the Jewish calendar encourages us to
examine our own current moral status in terms of how it might be impacting the suffering we see
and experience in our own lives and in the world. At Beth Israel, we do an awful
lot of good in the world, but as Jews, how can we do better? Are there those who we can
better reach out to, or social justice issues we are avoiding lending our voices to? Are there
blind spots and real suffering in our community that is going overlooked?
At our recent Tisha B’Av prayer gathering, we had some deep and meaningful experiences as we
studied together the poetic and metaphoric structures and social implications of our
Lamentation poetry. We listened as Rebecca, Gabriel, Uri, and Jacob
gave poignant and passionate expression to our traditional liturgy. The chanting
of the Biblical poetry gave ear to voices of suffering and protest that really resonate with
anyone who has ever experienced devastation, loss, poverty, hunger, or abuse. Too often we
see those who suffer without an ability to connect to their pain or to facilitate a
voice of protest. Participating in Eicha gives voice to our lament: “Why has this happened to me,
to us, to our community, to our country?”
On July 27, we celebrated Tu B’Av, the Festival Day of love, a fitting metaphor for the gradual
uplift in our spirits that we begin to feel as we begin the long and gradual build-up to maximum
joy at Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur. Once we have turned this corner and have re-dedicated
ourselves anew to doing good that will make a difference in the world, we begin to experience God’s
love on a different footing. Each year we have this opportunity to make this same turn, in our
relationships, our commitments, and our caring. As we are doing so, each of our Haftarot during
this period leading up to the High Holidays is designed to bring comfort to sufferers. But how do
we make that transition? What is it that brings healing and comfort to us after experiencing
personal suffering and loss?
Trees when they are wounded are said to heal over but never completely rid themselves entirely of a
wound. Perhaps trying to help someone heal is a futile endeavor without a real ability to see and
witness the whole living being. Our brokenness and our wounds are an integral part of
our being, and we take comfort in community as a place where we can safely share our
Like the magnificent tree who, despite her wounds, sprouts new leaves and reaches out with new
branches each year, we have the capacity with each new Holiday season to really listen to each
other and to grow together and strengthen ourselves and our communities in unexpected ways. May we
leverage our comfort and our wholeness to move eagerly and with intention toward the jolting sounds
of the Shofar in the month of Elul, reawakening ourselves to reach out to others in our
community in need of our listening, our presence, and our care. Let’s all take a new
visionary hold on our sacred tree of life, Etz Chaim, so that we experience the upcoming Holiday
season with renewed depth, commitment and joy.
July Rabbi's Massage:
June has been quiet in some ways and busy in others. On the one hand, the Jewish holiday cycle was
quiet this month, with no major Jewish holidays to keep us busy with extra cleaning, special
baking, or additional holiday-specific spiritual preparation. Many of our members travel
or plan a vacation at this time of year, taking advantage of this quiet and peaceful moment
in the Jewish calendar.
For me personally, it has been a busy month. Bina and I have been occupied with unpacking boxes,
settling into our new home in South Roanoke, finding our way around town, and meeting new neighbors
and friends. We have also found a little time to explore some of the many beautiful hiking trails
in the area. At the same time, I have begun meeting with officers and board members of Beth Israel
and preparing myself spiritually for a life of joyful service to the Beth Israel community. I am
really looking forward to joining the community in July!
There has also been much poignancy this month in our Jewish community. Several of you observed
important births, birthdays and anniversaries. A few of you are transitioning into grandparenthood.
Our community also supported several congregants as they observed meaningful yahrzeits. Together we
remembered the life of our member Morton Rosenberg as we embraced Carol Rosenberg and her family
at the unveiling of the memorial stone for her beloved husband. I would also like to thank you
personally for your care and concern during my shiva period and as I continue to mourn the passing
of my beloved mother, Ramona Morton Purser, z”l.
The Jewish calendar begins to “heat up” in the month of July, as we immediately transition into the
period of the Jewish calendar referred to as the “Three Weeks.” This period begins on July 1
with the 17th day of the month of Tammuz, marking the three-week mourning period leading up
to the 9th of Av on July 21 (Tisha B’Av). This three-week cycle at the beginning of July
commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem and the ultimate destruction of both holy
Temples (the first by the Babylonians, and the second Temple at the hand of the Romans).
At Beth Israel’s Tisha B’Av service on July 21, I am preparing a special study session
about “Eicha,” the Jewish poem of Lament for the destruction of the Temple. I will also help
lead a brief service after the study session, including a chanting of the poem by congregants and
the Rabbi. After Tisha B’Av, our somber mood will quickly change to one of renewal, as we look
forward with anticipation to the sounds of the shofar and the upcoming joys of the High Holidays in
the months of Elul and Tishrei.
Life has a way of blending sadness and joy, and I am grateful that our Jewish tradition, sacred
texts, and rituals can accommodate all seasons and emotions, of both stability and
change. I look forward to the bonds of sharing and caring we will create together as we
continue to mark in a sacred way the special moments in the ongoing life of Beth Israel.
Rabbi Jama Purser