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Learning Theme for 5773: Make the Minyan

The leaves are turning; the days are shorter; and one of these days it will cool off; fall is arriving next week. This is the season for turning, for considering our daily words and acts, and their impact.

This is also the season, in this election year, for a considerable increase in political advertising, especially if you live in a swing state; the news today indicated that the total dollars spent in presidential campaign ads has just reached $450 million.

But in all states, all the time, we are all bombarded with advertisements for things we should buy, and why. What they tell us about ourselves and our society is endlessly fascinating – and troubling.

For example, there’s this advertisement for Amica insurance, and every time I see it, it makes me crazy. Maybe you’ve seen it too? Happy people are presented to the camera, one after the other, each one holding up two letters: an M and an E.

No doubt the ad plays on the natural human desire for attention. We live, after all, in what the writer David Foster Wallace called a “Culture of Me”. Consider these common expressions:

  • It’s all about me [1]
  • I deserve it
  • It’s time for me (that’s a Botox ad)
  • It’s my turn

Then there are the names chosen for

  •  The iPhone, the iPod, the iPad, and Mobile Me (Apple)
  • The Museum of Me (so you can create a visual archive of your social life, by Intel)
  • There’s a “Self” magazine, a “Me” Magazine, and a “More” Magazine

Funny to think that not so long ago the very idea of a self as was novel. It’s still somewhat controversial at the biological level: in the ancient reaches of the human brain, there is still an awareness that being alone can be fatal.

We are very lucky to live now, and here, where we can choose to live alone and be safe doing so. And there are certain things we all have to do alone. But some things are a drag when you do them by yourself (lighting erev Shabbat candles alone in a dorm room is one example).

Jewish tradition is well aware of personal prayer and communal prayer; Jewish law accounts for personal responsibility as well as group acts.

Community is sine qua non

It’s also true, inescapably true, that when you’re Jewish, you belong to a community – even if you choose not to show up and be a part of it. We left Egypt together; we stood at Sinai together; when we discover that we’re in the same place as another Jew, we say to ourselves, M.O.T.! [Member of the Tribe]

And even the Jews who don’t show up have this mystical belief that on the day that they decide to go looking for the Jewish community, it will be there, and it will welcome them.

Jewish community is expressed in many ways, as we who seek to reach out to Jews living on the East Side of Portland are discovering. Even Jews who do not yet support the Jewish community suddenly emerge at certain times:

  • the uproar over the end of Kettleman’s Bagels
  • the erev Shabbat in the Park events
  • and, of course, High Holy Days…

Some things you just cannot do on your own, as a ME. In Jewish terms we call this need for community “making the minyan”. Minyan, the Hebrew word for “quorum”, refers to the most basic, most essential, mode of Jewish existence.

There are three aspects of a minyan:

1. Ten Men (well, critical mass no longer requires a beard but we still need a group)

who are

2. Jews (know the prayers, know the room, feel at home – born Jews and those who have joined the Jews)

must be

3. Present (no shaliakh – no expecting someone else to show up for you)

1. Ten = critical mass. Everything we’ve ever done at Shir Tikvah, no matter how unusual, has ever failed to draw a minyan – something that makes me very proud. Clearly, we don’t count only men! We count people who fit the contemporary parallel of that idea: Jews of or past bar/bat mitzvah age.

It’s true that individual “get off the couch and go” is necessary in order to get to the community barekhu, and there are personal, private, individual prayers presented in our siddur before we get to the communal prayers that require a minyan. But it’s also true that when we get to the barekhu nine Jews can’t say it; not according to the traditional understanding of the importance of the minyan.

That’s why if you go to a traditional shul, no one is there on time. Everyone knows that you don’t have to get there until we get to the point where we need to count heads and make sure that there’s a minyan.

Jewish tradition recognizes that the concept of “synergy” is not a fantasy; something does happen when we are together that is not present when we are alone. I don’t care what Facebook says, you can’t meet up with a friend if you are alone in front of a screen at the time.

2. Jews. A minyan is made by Jews: learning, conflicted about what we’re called upon to learn, inconvenienced by the hours of what we’re expected to do – most of all, the minyan is made by Jews who are aware of Jewishness as something that matters in our lives, aware that we are part of a larger kehillah kedoshah, a community meant to be holy.

We all stood together at Sinai.

The mystics teach that we are the limbs of a will of which God is the essence; we are all part of the same reality. We are like bees, which seem to move with a group brain. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, “all Israel are guarantors for each other”, as it is said. We are all here for each other; what happens to one Jew affects us all.

It’s not that we don’t welcome non-Jews who are drawn to our community; whether or not a Jewish significant other brings them, all are welcome to support our kehillah and what it represents. And we certainly welcome those who seek to learn whether or not their souls are meant to find their home within Jewish identity.

But to be a Jew is to embrace Jewish identity – or to be troubled by it – from a place of irreversible connection. If you cringe when a high profile Jew does something embarrassing or criminal, if you are desperate for Israel to fulfill its Jewish ethical potential and be a light to the nations rather than just another nation-state, in short, if when you speak of Jews you say “we”, then you’re a Jew.

3. showing upIn July of 2001 I arrived at the entrance to the new Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem, on the outskirts of the city, to attend the funeral of a friend. I was appalled to see a few men standing at the entrance with their hands out – they were offering to recite Kaddish at the grave of my choice, for a fee.

Now, they may have struck you and me as very good Jews; they were bearded and dressed in black, after all, and we American liberal Jews have a knee-jerk tendency to believe that anyone who looks like that is more Jewish than we are.

But as Shir Tikvah’s weekly Talmud class students know, Jewish law mandates that, whether in religious practice or in settling damages, you can’t send a messenger or pay someone to do it for you. You have to show up yourself.

That’s why at Shir Tikvah we don’t recite a list of names before the mourners’ Kaddish. The Kaddish does not belong to the shul. Mourners say Kaddish wherever they are, and when they – you – come to this shul, you lead the Kaddish in honor of the one you are remembering, and we respond as the supportive minyan within which you must, alone, face your memories and your mourning. The lesson of the minyan is that no one should recite Kaddish alone: even though each of us must mourn alone, no one in mourning should be unsupported by the embrace of a minyan. When you come to shul to help make the minyan, even when you don’t need it for yourself, you are helping to ensure that there will be a minyan – and when you do need it, there’s a good chance it will be there for you.

As someone said, “ninety percent of success is just showing up.”  The other ten percent, for us Jews, is showing up b’kol levav’kha, b’khol naf’shekha, uv’kol m’odekha, “with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your wherewithal.”

To show up is to bring your kavanah, your mindfulness; in the Torah, it is “the offering of one’s heart”. It’s how the Israelites responded when they were asked to contribute to the creation of the Mishkan, the sacred space, the Tent of Meeting where our combined presence created the chance to sense God’s presence. One brings the offering of the heart when one seeks out the best and most caring contribution; not just what happens to be conveniently laying around. It makes the most beautiful Mishkan, and the most supportive, caring, wonderful community of friends, as we prove to ourselves over and over again when someone who regularly shows up for the Shir Tikvah community becomes the grateful recipient of the outpouring of support that this congregation offers at a wedding, a brit milah, a bat or bar mitzvah celebration, and, when necessary, in a hospital room, and in the mourners’ minyan.

What those who show up have learned is that the rule that we can’t individually recite prayers such as the barekhu and the kedushah, which require a minyan, is Jewish tradition’s way of saying that in our coming together, in showing up for each other, we literally create the potential for the presence of kedushah, ofholiness.

It’s not that you can’t talk to God alone, you can. But when we come together, at least ten of us Jews who understand the significance of our individual act of show up, so that when we as a congregation gather here and now, we create a Place. A Place in which we invoke the connectedness that makes our lives holy, by showing up. By choosing to be present. By understanding that the true power of ME is in the ability to become WE—by turning the M over it becomes WE.

The Talmud Bavli relates a story[2] which takes place in the years after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, when much of the population of what had been the Kingdom of Judah was in exile. Imagine the feelings that overwhelmed a Rabbi named Yossi as he walked alone through the ruins of the holy city, the city in which God’s presence was always to be found. Other stories are told of Rabbis bursting into tears when they beheld what had become of the once glorious Temple precincts.

Rabbi Yossi enters part of the ruined Temple to pray; there he meets Elijah the Prophet, who asks him what he is seeking. Yossi answers Elijah that he had sought to pray there; perhaps he hoped to connect to the former glory, and the lingering sense of God’s presence that might still cling even to the broken rocks.

“Elijah asked me, ‘my son, what sound did you hear in this ruin?’

‘I heard a heavenly voice which sighed like a dove and said, woe to the children who built this destroyed house, this burned Temple, and are exiled among the nations’.”

Yossi hears the sound of the tragedy which has occurred; alone in the ruins, he can remember only his own and his people’s sad memories. This story is trying to tell the Israelites, scattered around the Roman Empire and traumatized, that in our individual search for meaning each of us has only one set of personal memories, and one perspective, to bring to the moment.

Elijah tells Yossi that he should not have entered the ruin; that the place to hear the voice of hope, of the future, is to go find a minyan and join it “at the hour when Israel enters the synagogues and the houses of study.” When the people of Israel together recite the phrase yehei shmei hagadol mevorakh, the Holy Blessed One nods and says, “happy is the King who is praised in his house in this way”.

The “yehei shmeh” is part of a prayer which can only be recited when there is a minyan present, a prayer that speaks of kedushah, of holiness. What Elijah is telling Yossi is that it is within the Jewish community, gathered together in study or in prayer, that Yossi, and we, will sense God’s presence. Not in our solitary search through the ruins of that which was, but in our coming together in holiness – kaddish means “holy” – to evoke what will be.

When we show up to help make the minyan, we create the WE which is made up of all our MEs. In this new year of 5773, I hope to have the privilege with you of creating an even stronger WE in all the ways that we show up for each other, as we seek to create a kehillah kedoshah that welcomes and celebrates the individual gifts of the heart of every one of us.

We have yet to begin to imagine what we are capable of becoming, together, when we take seriously our individual part in the creation of a mindful, meaningful, holy minyan. Come, and help us make it.


[1] The American Psychiatric Association recently announced it’s considering lifting “narcissistic personality disorder” — along with four other personality disorders — from its highly influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

[2] BT Masekhet Berakhot 3a, slightly adapted.

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