Succot & Simchat Torah Articles
Rabbi Michael Plaskow LTSC ALCM MBE
Some thoughts by Dr Mervyn Leviton
It is impossible to write briefly about the life of the Rabbi Michael Plaskow MBE. He is certainly no stranger to public and communal life. If I were to include every facet of his interesting and fascinating life story, it would probably need all the pages of this magazine. Just switch on your computer, go to Google and insert his name and you'll see what I mean.
But before I write about Michael's role and contribution to the Young Israel Synagogue of North Netanya, here are just a few details of his earlier life. He was born in Tel Aviv on 8th July 1936 to British born parents Solomon and Bella who made aliya in the early thirties and were married in Tel Aviv. However, due to the political troubles in Palestine, as it was then, they returned to Britain with young Michael in 1937.
He grew up first in Wales and then in 1945 the family moved to Stamford Hill. He was educated first at the Egerton Road Primary school and then at the famous Central Foundation Grammar School, Cowper Street, in the City of London from 1947-52. He decided to study Chazanut and was accepted at Jews' College. He was twice awarded the Samuel Alman Prize for Chazanut. At the same time he studied music at the Curwen College of Music where he gained his LTSC diploma and ALCM (Associate of the London College of Music) diploma in singing and theory of music.
In 1956 the Woodside Park Synagogue suffered a terrible tragedy. Both the Chazan and financial representative were killed in a road accident whilst returning from the funeral of the father of Rabbi Sydney Leperer the Rabbi of the synagogue. Jews' College was asked to supply a Chazan at short notice, but it had to be someone who could also read the Torah. Michael was the only one who could do both. He officiated on Shabbat 17th November 1956 and remained until his retirement on 1st January 2000 and then moved to Netanya with his lovely wife Phyllis.
During his professional life in England he has been deeply involved in many other aspects of communal life.
He is a highly experienced and successful Mohel,
He was the Visiting Chaplain to many hospitals and a prison, Wormwood Scrubbs.
He was the Honorary Chaplain to the Jewish Deaf Association and was instrumental in obtaining the authority of the London Beth Din for use of the Loop System in synagogues on Shabbat.
For 15 years, he was Chaplain to Kisharon School for Special Needs Jewish Children and attended on virtually a daily basis.
He was the Chairman of the Chazanim Association of Great Britain and in that capacity represented all the Chazanim at meetings of the Council of the United Synagogue.
He was chairman of the public sector for the Metropolitan Police in the borough of Barnet .
He is a Freeman of the City of London and holds the distinguished rank of Past Junior Grand Deacon in Freemasonry.
When he held the rank of Acting Grand Chaplain, he was given the honour of being Founding Chaplain at the Consecration of two new lodges - a rare honour.
In 1996, he was awarded the Norman Spencer Essay Prize for Research into Freemasonry.
In 1996 he received the honour of an MBE, member of Her Majesty's Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
On his retirement he was appointed Emeritus Chazan of the Woodside Park Synagogue having served the community for 43 years.
Here at the Young Israel Synagogue of North Netanya, he remains a busy public figure but always with time for everyone. He successfully leads the daily Daf Yomi after every weekday Shacharit, is still an outstanding and expert Baal Keriah, a highly competent and knowledgeable Gabbai, and a talented actor in our annual Purim Spiel.
Michael has many qualities but there is one other quality that I, as a close and personal friend of many years, can say without doubt or fear of contradiction. Never in all the time that I have known him, have I ever heard Michael speak badly about any other person. He is truly worthy of every honour that has been and is being bestowed on him.
Today here in Israel, he is surrounded by his close family, his wife Phyllis, his brother Stuart, his two daughters, sons-in-law, six grandchildren and six great grandchildren. I am sure that every member of our synagogue joins with me in wishing Mazal Tov to him and to his lovely family.
Wonders of The Universe
by Maureen Kendler
Teaching Fellow and Lead Tutor LSJS
Below is a short transcript for the Radio 2 programme Pause for Thought.
This week is the Jewish festival of Sukkot. It is a harvest festival which is weather-dependent, as we build a little hut- a Sukkah- outside in which to celebrate the festival -if the rain stops long enough to do so. It's one of the drawbacks of belonging to a desert religion and not living in the desert. - Ideally, we spend the week in the Sukkah eating and sleeping there - but in this country it is a risky business. Meanwhile my daughter who lives in in Florida told me that it was too humid to sit in her Sukkah because the sun was unbearably hot.
The wonders of the universe? Context is everything!
It depends where you're standing and what you want to see. It is all too easy to become utterly exasperated by the weather when it disrupts our schedule, and also indifferent to or annoyed with animals and insects that may disturb us or get in our way... We can see these natural wonders as spiteful, out to get us, to spoil our cherished plans.
When my daughter was small, our ten-minute walk to the nearest station was anything but. I learned to set aside as long as it took. Firstly there were the leaves and the flowers and a local cat. One garden on our route had a special tree that needed a good look, and if it had been raining, the snail and slug population offered untold entertainment. Woodlice held a special fascination. There was a funny dog, and there were fragrant lilac branches.
None of the above made any impact on me I when I was walking alone, as the only thing I looked at was the traffic, and my watch, to check how late I was. The lilac branches had to be brushed impatiently out of the way and the slugs avoided. . Watching a snail making its excruciating way across the wet pavement was beautiful to share through my child's eyes, but when I was hurrying along by myself it was merely to be nuisance to be avoided and a sickening crunch under my shoe if I missed my step. Yes, context is everything.
I suppose we see ourselves as the ultimate wonders of the world and that everything should fit round us!
Sukkot, the harvest festival provides a good old-fashioned dose of humility - the harvest has come in, -, and we can take a moment to enjoy Nature around us. There is food on the table - and that is all thanks to the rain that we have been complaining about!
Simchat Torah - Joy
by Esther Shuker
When I was first asked to speak this evening I knew exactly what I wanted to talk about because it's been in my mind for a while.
Every school morning, my son and I read a tehillim in order to kickstart the day. When I am feeling particularly grateful to Hashem, I also read Psalm No 100, which commences 'Mizmor le Toda' ... as I feel we should be showing gratitude to Hashem for all his blessings - and at the same time I hope my son and other children, will see that Hashem is really the source of our blessings and a little 'thank you' never goes amiss.
No 100 is a line which I particularly love and which is apposite for this Chag of Simchat Torah. 'Ibdu et Hashem beSimcha' - serve Hashem with Joy. Come before him with joyous song.
I truly believe it should be read every day as it such a simple and fundamental little reminder of how our attitude should be right from when we wake up, when possible of course.
How, then, do we serve Hashem with Joy? How do we serve Hashem at all? To answer the second question first, serving Hashem means doing Mitzvot. When Hashem created man, the design was a Godly neshama, soul, clothed in a physical body. The body is the vehicle used to perform mitzvoth and by performing them, our souls can reconnect with Hashem, as they yearn to do. That reconnection brings joy to our neshama (Rabbi Walkin in The World Within) - that answers the first question.
The world in which we live is full of material beauty and physical pleasures. Our religion elevates the material and the physical such that we can use everything around us to bring joy - we do not deprive ourselves of fine wines, delicious food, beautiful cars, lavish homes ... on the contrary, we are exhorted to use them for the performance of mitzvoth - invite people to your beautiful home, share with them your delicious food and wine, take them home in your Maserati. It is up to us to reconcile the material with the Godly and thus reap joy from using one in the service of the other.
When we think of Yaacov and Esav - those prime examples of the spiritual and the physical, and the time when they were reunited, Esav who had overflowing riches, said 'yesh li rov' - I have plenty. Yaacov, who had a gift to add to Esav's considerable possessions, said 'yesh li kol' - I have everything. For Esav there was still plenty more he could amass - and we see this in the world today where people are just gathering material possessions and not really deriving happiness from them. By Yaacov saying he had everything, however, we see that happiness and joy come from within. We can determine our own happiness just by choosing to focus on the good and the blessings we all have. Then we really need nothing more. We are satisfied with our lot.
During Rosh Hashana, we pray to Our Father Our King, avinu malkeinu. On the one hand we are the children of Hashem our father; on the other we are subjects or servants of God our King.
A father will look upon his children with compassion, love, mercy, forgiveness. A child also will do as his father asks him and - hopefully - want to do even more than his father requested out of love and joy.
If a King (or a boss) would ask for something he would expect it to be carried out without question. One would do his bidding out of awe and fear of losing his job. He would not necessarily do it with joy and would do only the minimum in many cases.
There is a clear distinction here. However, when it comes to Hashem, there is no distinction - He is close to us, He is there for us, we can be as close or as far as we wish - we have unlimited access to Him. As a father and as a King. We can get in closer touch by doing mizvot or praying - how joyful is that!
When it comes to our children, instead of teaching them that 'ez iz schwer zu sein a yid' - it's difficult to be a Jew (excuse the Yiddish) we must impart 'ez iz a glick zu sein a yid' - it's a joy to be a Jew and then go on to show them that we keep the Torah because we want to rather than because we have to.
There is an old Chassidic adage which perfectly sums up my message: "we rejoice in the Torah, and the Torah rejoices in us.
Simchat Torah Rain
by Maxine Zeltser
My daughter, Penina, recently had to complete an essay on the conflict between the prevention of poverty and saving the environment. Which should take priority? My immediate response was to argue that, of course, our most pressing concern should be to stop poverty and save human life. However, after some thought I realised that the issue is not so clear cut. Climate change has led to increased flooding in some areas and extended droughts in others. Both cause devastation for poor farmers by destroying their crops and causing them to become reliant on charity as they have no other means to support themselves or their families.
When one considers this, one realises the importance of rain. It needs to fall at the right time and in the right amounts otherwise devastation can occur. From this we can see the significance of the recital of the Prayer for Rain on Shemini Atzeret. Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel explains that the name Atzeret means assembly which indicates that on this day Jews should assemble together to pray for rain.
I thought that I would talk about some aspects of this prayer and then look at what we can learn from the source of rain - water.
1. Why do we pray for rain now?
The Talmud teaches that there are different types of judgment at various times of the year. On Succot we are judged with regard to water and rainfall. Autumn and winter are the rainy seasons in Israel, which is dependent on rainfall for the success of its crops. As Succot is the pilgrimage festival nearest to the rainy season, the Rabbis proclaimed that the Prayer for Rain should be recited at this time. But wait, Succot is the festival celebrated mainly outside in the succah where we are subject to the vagaries of the weather. Indeed, it is regarded as a sign of Divine displeasure for rain to prevent people from eating and living there (hopefully this only applies to Israel, for in this country rain at this time of year is the norm! ), so surely it would be incongruous for us to pray for rain at a time when we did not want it to fall. For this reason, we recite the prayer for rain on Shemini Atzeret when there is no Torah command to eat in the succah and so we can recite the prayer without any reservations.
The Rabbis compare rainfall on Succot to a servant who brings a decanter of water in order to mix it with wine and pour a cup for his master. The master pours the decanter out into to the servant's face, showing that the servant's actions are not acceptable. Likewise, rain on Succot is a sign that Hashem is dissatisfied with our service and wishes us to leave the Succah. The Mishnah explains this parable by stating that the servant represents Israel trying to water down the severe judgment of the High Holy Days with mercy. Hashem, by not allowing the Jews to fulfil the mitzvah of succah shows that He is not ready to temper justice with mercy. In view of this the Vilna Gaon suggests that it is particularly appropriate to offer prayers for rain on Shimini Atzeret.
Although we do not pray directly for rain on Succot, we are involved in mitzvoth which allude to rain and serve as a silent prayer for it. The taking of the Arba Minim, all of which require plenty of water for their growth serve as a form of prayer that Hashem should have mercy upon His people and provide its land with timely and beneficial rainfall.
2. Another question you might ask, is why do we only recite the prayer for rain based on the rainy season in Israel?
Surely, if you lived in, say, Australia you should recite this prayer prior to the rainy season of that country. Rabbi Aryeh Tzvi Frommer explains: The Torah refers to Eretz Yisrael as a 'land that Hashem your G-d seeks out; the eyes of Hashem, your G-d, are always upon it from the beginning of the year to year's end'. Although Hashem is all powerful and oversees the entire Universe, His principal attention is centred on Israel, while the rest of the world enjoys His blessing on a secondary level. Israel serves as a channel for Hashem's beneficence on Earth and only after attending to it does He bless other lands. The key to rain and prosperity around the globe lies, therefore, in Hashem's blessing the Land of Israel. Our prayers should, therefore, be that Hashem grants rain in the Holy Land and that through this, the whole world will merit the blessing of rain, each area in its own time.
3. Are we just praying for rain?
It is important to pray for the right things at the right times. During Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we pray for spiritual growth. Even during Succot, offerings were brought altruistically on behalf of the nations of the world. It is only on Shemini Atzeret that we focus on our practical concerns. Indeed the Hebrew word 'Geshem' meaning 'rain', is related to the word 'Gushmioot' which translates as 'the physical'. The morning of Shemini Atzeret is such a propitious time for prayer that even those entreaties which do not merit a response may receive consideration. As the Zohar teaches about Shemini Atzeret, 'When one has a private audience with the King, he may ask for his heart's desires and they will be granted.'
4. What is so important about rain?
On Shemini Atzeret, we begin to add the phrase
'He makes the wind blow and the rain descend'
to the second paragraph of the Amidah. This is the paragraph which speaks of Hashem's powers as shown on Earth. Rain is deemed to be the greatest of such powers as it brings forth produce and life is brought to the world; parched plants are revived; dead seeds buried in the ground are resurrected and the population is sustained. We cannot live without water. For this reason it was ruled that Hashem's gift of rain should be mentioned first.
So you can see that Judaism really does appreciate how critical the wellbeing of the environment is to our existence.
I would like to conclude by looking at the characteristics of rain and considering what we can learn from them. This was brought to my attention by a fascinating book called Intergalactic Judaism by Rabbi David Lister. Rabbi Lister describes in detail the many forms of rain. From water droplets to water vapour, from hailstones to mist, from snow to solid ice. Water can even take on different colours. Sunlight hitting a water droplet can split up into its constituent colours of red, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet - the colours of the spectrum- and form a rainbow. That is not all water forms steam, foaming waterfalls, crashing waves, stagnant ponds, whirlpools and glaciers, mighty rivers that flow down mountainsides and carve valleys out of solid rock, sweeping away everything in its path. Water can travel thousands of miles from trickling streams along winding rivers to raging seas.
These incredible abilities are highlighted in Psalm 147:
'sends His utterance to Earth; His word runs very swiftly. He gives snow like wool, and scatters frost like ashes. He throws His ice like crumbs - who can stand before His cold? He sends out His word and it melts them; He makes His wind blow, and they flow along as water. He tells His word to Jacob, and His statutes and judgments to Israel.'
Rabbi Lister questions why the text changes from a meditation on Hashem's word to a discussion of the various forms of water. The Psalmist is inviting us to look at the wonders of water as a guide to how much we can adapt ourselves in order to do Hashem's will. Just as water travels thousands of miles and takes many forms we, too, should be prepared to change ourselves according to Hashem's commands. As people who aspire to be servants of Hashem and the bearers of His word in this world, we can discard our prejudices about what we can and cannot do, and be ready to find ourselves developing in unimaginable ways.