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Date with G-d shouldn’t be rushed

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I was sad when I read Howard Feldman’s column in last week’s SA Jewish Report (10 February 2022) advocating for shorter shul services. He writes beautifully, with humour, and to the point, and I often turn to his article first when I get my hands on the paper. It was precisely because his comments were so much to the point that I was so sad. I felt sad because if his opinion is shared by many, then my colleagues and I have failed dismally.

This week’s Torah reading is the third, in a series of five, detailing the building of G-d’s sanctuary. In the travelling tabernacle and subsequently in the temple built in Jerusalem, one visited and enjoyed the presence of Hashem, up close and personal, through the experience of daily miracles. Though we’re no longer blessed with this level of divine revelation, we’re fortunate to have mini-temples – our synagogues – wherever Jews live. There, we can, as King David describes in Psalm 27, “sit in the house of G-d to see the pleasantness of G-d and to visit His sanctuary”.

Indeed, if shul attendance is a chore, if prayer is a mere obligation, then the quicker and the more expediently we do this the better. If, however, we learn to appreciate the privilege it is to be in the house of G-d, the blessing it is to be in His presence, and the gift it is to be able to address Him in the second person – “Thou”, or in more modern times, “You” – then every additional moment is to be savoured and cherished.

Think of it as date night with your significant other, one that’s going really well. You’re enjoying every minute of each other’s presence, and dread the moment the magic will end. You linger on, trying to make the evening last as long as possible. You order dessert, not because the menu selections look so interesting, but simply because this will delay the end of this magical tête-à-tête.

Could it be that some view shul as a very poor night out, when the conversation is really strained, the atmosphere tense, and you want the waiter to bring the bill even before the plates have been cleared?

For months on end, lockdown after lockdown, our synagogues stood empty. Naively, we thought that the adage “absence makes the heart grow fonder” would apply, and that the moment the doors swung open, our flock would flock. If what our congregants now want is a leaner, more compact service, then we as rabbonim have failed to convey the privilege that is “sitting in the house of G-d and visiting His sanctuary”. This makes me feel really sad.

I will leave the final word to King David once again, with the line from Psalm 26 we recite in the Ma Tovu prayer upon entering the synagogue: “G-d, I have always loved coming to Your house, the dwelling place where Your glory resides.”

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