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The non-accidental tourist

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I lived in New York for many years. During this time, I never once toured the Statue of Liberty, went up the Empire State Building, or visited world famous toy store FAO Schwarz. It wasn’t until later, when I returned as a visitor with my own children, that we frequented famous tourist spots. One of the kids was absolutely enthralled by the throngs crossing the busy Manhattan pedestrian crossings when the “Walk” sign came on, and begged for us to cross the same avenue, over and over, loving the feeling of being part of this wave of humans!

Clearly, we become accustomed to our habitual surroundings and develop a blasé attitude to them. When a place is fresh and new, there’s a mystique and excitement to it. What about our shuls? Do we take our places of worship for granted, accustomed as we are to going there? Or is each visit to the House of the Lord a magical, rousing venture?

In Psalm 27 – which we recite daily through the month of Elul and throughout the holidays of next month – King David expressed the following wish: “One thing I ask of Hashem, and this I will seek, that I can dwell in the House of Hashem all the days of my life, to gaze at the pleasantness of Hashem, and to visit His sanctuary.” This request appears contradictory. If the first part is fulfilled, then he will be in G-d’s house permanently. To visit implies that he’s not there all the time and comes only occasionally.

For many, the high holidays of 2022 will be their first yom tov season back in shul, as we emerge from two years of a horrific pandemic. Services were legal in 2020 as well as in 2021, but with severe restrictions. There was a limit on the number of participants and the duration of prayers; attendance registers had to be completed and temperatures taken at the door; seating was socially distant; and we had to pray through masks. It’s hard to believe that just a year ago, midnight Selichot services couldn’t take place due to curfew regulations! None of this was normal, and for those who chose to attend the past two holiday seasons, as unpleasant as much of it was, it made the services more appreciated.

We cherish things most when we have been deprived of them. As the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder. This year’s Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services offer us a unique opportunity of renewal and freshness. Obviously for those who didn’t attend for the past couple of years, it will be special to be back in the pews. Even for the stalwarts who didn’t stay away, this will be the first “normal” yom tov season, when we’ll be able to connect with Hashem and each other at shul without the artificial limitations of the past. We may have become blasé about the privilege it is to “dwell in the House of the Lord”. This year, we’ll appreciate every minute of what we had been deprived of.

This the dichotomy King David presents in his heartfelt plea of Psalm 27. He wishes to spend every day of his life in Hashem’s sanctuary. But he fears that this will become habitual, that he’ll stop appreciating the privilege it is to “gaze at the pleasantness of Hashem”. So, he adds a proviso to his request: that each stay in the sanctuary feels like an occasional visit. He wishes to be a permanent resident who never loses the curiosity, excitement, and awe of a tourist.

Thank G-d our shuls were returned to us! Now, let’s return to our shuls, grateful for the privilege and excited at the opportunity. Let’s cherish and appreciate every moment, like a permanent resident who behaves like a tourist in his own city.

Shana tova!

  • Rabbi Yossi Chaikin is the rabbi at Oxford Synagogue and chairperson of the SA Rabbinical Association.

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