There is a concept in Judaism of ‘minyan’ or a quorum of ten men necessary for public religious observances. The sources of this requirement are several Biblical verses regarding congregations and the number of people who constitute a ‘congregation’, as interpreted by a variety of scholars throughout the ages. It is traditionally accepted that public prayer is preferable to private because it enables one to perform several obligations not available in individual worship. Among other things, you need an assembly of ten men to read from the Torah, recite certain prayers, and to say the Mourner’s Kaddish.
Since Jake’s passing I have been getting up at 6:30 every morning (no small feat in and of itself) to go to shul (synagogue) to say Kaddish for him. Our shul is a small, neighborhood affair, housed in a converted storefront; it is an unpretentious, welcoming community. Our rabbi follows the Orthodox Chassidic traditions of Chabad, but it is not formally affiliated with Chabad. Nor any other movement. We are basically on our own; we survive through the donations of the members. We don’t charge an annual membership fee; no one is ever turned away because of financial, religious, or any other reasons. All are welcome. We have been ‘members’ for around 13 years. Now, I was not raised in a religious family, nor have I been particularly observant throughout my life. Well, hardly observant at all. How we came to belong to this little shul, and the transformations it (and we) have undergone to arrive at this present juncture is a long story, but the short answer is: on account of Jake. Naturally.
Because ours is a small community, and morning services are at 6:30 AM, there are some days where we don’t get ten men, don’t have a minyan. Often there will only be nine, and we sit and wait for the tenth man to show up. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t. That means whoever is saying Kaddish cannot. Those saying Kaddish for a loved one need me, and I need them. We all need each other. Every man is important.
This morning when I arrived, I was the tenth man; I made the minyan. A mitzvah of its own. But a two-sided one. Yes, I filled the quorum, made it possible for those who needed to say Kaddish, but I was late. I came at the end of the service so there were some prayers in the earlier part that couldn’t be said. In reality, the real mitzvah is to be the first one there. So no one has to wait; you have the minyan right away, all the necessary obligations can be fulfilled, the prayer service properly completed, and people can go about their day. But the upshot is that ten of us ultimately showed up. In Judaism, there is a curious precept that one who has the intent to perform a mitzvah gets credit for it even if he cannot do so because of circumstances beyond his control. If I show up to say Kaddish for Jake, and we don’t have a minyan, I can’t actually say it, but he gets the credit anyway. However, it is far better to be there and do the deed, to support others who need to elevate the souls of their loved departed, than to just think about it. The intent isn’t always enough. You have to act to accomplish something.
In grief, we are often isolated, we feel so terribly alone, wondering how the world around us can continue as if nothing happened, when our personal world is in shambles, shattered, forever changed. When we come together, share our heartache, let each other know we are here too, that we all feel the same anguish, the same bewilderment, the same crushing sorrow, we create our own minyan. Where we can know that the person standing next to us is on the same path. Has the same doubts and fears. Cries the same tears. Has the same questions. This can be comforting in a strange way. Knowing that you aren’t the only crazy one, that others are going through the same crucible, can be reassuring somehow. Nothing will ever take away the heartache, but we may be able to help each other along the road. We all need someone to lean on, sometimes. We are truly in this together. Like the morning minyan, every person is important.
Tonight is the English date of my Jacob’s passing. March 1, we received the call from R.Pliskin, our son’s mentor and close friend. Zelig refers to Jacob as his younger brother. Today it’s stormy in S.CA. Unusual and fitting.
Four years have gone by. My beautiful son of blessed memory is no longer with us. Still, I picture him arranging things for us up in heaven. Helping his family get along on this difficult, tragic road. He always saw the joke in everything, though living his life as a spiritual person and Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem.
The pain doesn’t lessen, not exactly, but it weaves in and out a new pattern in our lives. Have a gud shabbos, peace be with you. Love, Abby
Abby, thank you for your beautiful comment. Yes, the pain weaves in and out and becomes a part of the patten of our new lives. I wish you and your family peace.
Thank you for explaining this so thoroughly. This is the first time that I really understand not only the meaning of a minyan, but the purpose, significance, and true value. Makes me wish that I had such a community. I’m wondering about your wife…is there something comparable for her?
In Orthodox Judaism, women don’t count toward the minyan. In Reform and some Conservative congregations, they do. We do have a women’s group, like a Sisterhood that meets occasionally for study, lectures and events. She also has the support of a core group of women friends at shul as well. She can participate in the ‘mens minyan, can say kaddish, and she often does.
We are blessed to have such a caring and supportive group of people around us. Thank you for your always cogent and insightful commentary.
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