Thursday, May 23, 2013

Everyone Counts (portion Shelach L'chah)

One cannot live a Jewish life alone.  Ours is a communal tradition.  Many primary Jewish activities require a minyan—the presence of ten adults (in Orthodox Judaism, only men; in liberal Judaism, both women and men).  Without a congregation of ten, we do not read Torah in public, celebrate the blessings over a marriage, or recite the mourner’s Kaddish.

Surprisingly, the source of this practice of minyan comes from this week’s Torah portion, Shelach L’chah.  In the reading, Moses sends twelve scouts, one per tribe, to spy out the land of Canaan.  Two of them—Joshua and Caleb—urge the people to enter the land.  But the other ten scouts bring back a negative report, complaining that the people who live there are too strong for the Israelites to conquer.  In response to that group of naysayers, God asks Moses: “How much longer shall that wicked congregation (edah) keep muttering against me?”  From this language, the Rabbis of the Talmud derive the teaching that ten people constitute a congregation (tractate Megillah 23b).

How ironic: the requirement for a minyan comes from one of the most infamous and negative gatherings in the Hebrew Bible!  Why do the Rabbis use this case?  They could just as easily have cited God’s concession to Abraham to save Sodom for the sake of ten righteous individuals.  Another source, in the midrash, argues for the minyan as corresponding to Jacob’s ten sons who go down to Egypt in search of food during time of famine.  Yet the final ruling insists on the ten fearful and rebellious scouts as the source of the practice.

Perhaps this comes to teach us something important, namely, that everyone counts.  It has often been noted that nine of the greatest sages of all time would not make a minyan, while ten scoundrels do.   Sometimes, just showing up is enough.  Each of us can be the one to make the minyan, no matter how badly we may have failed in everything else.  Talmud teaches: “Despise no one, for everyone has his or her hour.” 

This is particularly true here at CABI.  We are a relatively small community, and we cannot rely on others to keep Jewish life vital.  It is up to each and every one of us to do our part.  We need not be saints to make the minyan—thank God.

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