Monday, May 22, 2017

Minyan is for your sake

היום אחד וארבעים יום, שהם חמשה שבועות וששה ימים, בעמר
Today is forty-one days, which is five weeks and six days, of the omer
יסוד שביסוד
A day of foundation in a week of foundation

Practice has become my theme of this week of foundation. So on this double day of foundation, I honor the most foundational of the foundations of my Jewish practice---minyan. To do that, I once again share the words of my teacher, Rabbi Alan Lew, z"l, who gifted me with this practice.

There have been many times in these past 15+ years, for many different reasons, that I've wanted to just stop going to morning minyan. But each time, I could hear Rabbi Lew in my head, "Marilyn, you can't just give it up because you don't like it now."

Keeping up the practice is the practice. It both renews and strengthens the foundation.

Minyan is for your sake - Rabbi Alan Lew, Nov 1996
Our daily minyan is one of the great treasures of our congregation. It provides our members and people all over Northern California with a place to mourn, to observe yarzheits, or to simply turn to God in the traditional Jewish way at times in their lives when they feel an urgent need to do so. 
But the greatest beneficiaries of the minyan are the people who attend every day. Why is this so? According to the Midrash Ein Yakov, Yehudah HaNasi once asked three of his students, "Mah Hapasuk Hakolel Biyoter Batorah-- what is the most inclusive verse in all the Torah?" Ben Zoma chose the Shema -- "Hear O Israel, The Lord is our God, The Lord Alone!" Ben Azai made another obvious choice -- "Vi-a-havta li-reacha kamocha -- You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Then Ben Pazi, a much more obscure rabbi then either Ben Zoma or Ben Azai, chose a verse which was also much more obscure -- one of the laws of the Temple Sacrifice from the Book of Numbers: "You shall offer up one lamb every morning and one lamb every night."
"I agree with Ben Pazi," Yehudah HaNasi said. His students were dumbfounded. How could he prefer this apparently trivial verse to a fundamental statement of principle like the Shema, or a great ethical concept like the commandment to love one's neighbor. The reason, I think, is precisely because they were principles and concepts. The implicit message of this Midrash is that it isn't principles or concepts which really count-- rather it is what we do every day. "You shall offer up one lamb every morning and one lamb every night." If we express our faith in specific, concrete deeds, and if we do so rain or shine on a regular basis, then we are engaged religiously in a way that mere thoughts and good intentions can never engage us. 
Daily minyan is the modern version of the single lamb our ancestors offered up every morning and every evening. Praying every day we come to know the full range of human spiritual potential; from transcendant exaltation to stultifying boredom; from the frustration of not quite knowing what we're saying to the joy of being swept up in a spiritual energy larger than our own. Praying every day with others we get a very real sense of how difficult it is to join in real communion with others, and how wonderful it feels when we finally manage to do so; praying every day with others we come to explore that tenuous boundary between self and other which is always the real locus of the spiritual experience. 
The holidays are great; they lend a sense of spiritual structure to the cycle of the year. Shabbat is wonderful. Our practice of Judaism deepens precipitously when we begin to take Shabbat seriously. But daily minyan represents another quantum leap altogether. As both Ben Pazi and Yehudah HaNasi affirmed, it's what we do every day that builds a sense of Jewish spirituality into the warp and woof of our lives. And in the Jewish tradition, daily minyan is the principal medium of daily spirituality. 
This is why we have mounted a campaign to get more of you to minyan this year. Not for the minyan's sake; the minyan is doing fine, and will continue to do fine for the foreseeable future. We are mounting this campaign for your sake. We want you to get a taste of what a daily spiritual practice can do for your soul. Judaism, after all, is a religion of life, and life is what happens every day.

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