Several summers ago I was in Israel leading a Birthright trip. At breakfast one morning there was a sudden commotion in the far corner of the room. People dashed around and hurriedly tapped others on the shoulder and they all made a beeline for a side-room. Noticing the kerfuffle I approached our group who were standing near the centre of the action. “They’ve taken Gary”, declared one member who seemed confused, amused, and excited in pretty equal measure.
Gary, a 19 year old from a small village near Andover who had thus far met two Jews- both of whom he was related to- might have had little experience of, or prior exposure to, Judaism before this moment, but for this occasion none of that mattered.
Actually, the only thing that mattered was that he existed, and that he was Jewish.
The experience of suddenly losing an adult member of your party to a small noisy side room is a surprisingly common breakfast hazard in Israeli hotels. Far from being abducted by aliens, a fate I had momentarily worried might have befallen Gary, these men are being sought out to fulfil an important religious function. They’re minyan makers. They’re needed to make up the quorum traditionally required in Jewish tradition to say certain prayers and perform certain rituals.
Crucially, you need a minyan to say the Baruchu, to read Torah, and to say Kaddish. The last part is often the driver behind these rushed attempts to locate enough Jewish men over a certain age. They don’t need to do anything, but in order to recite kaddish in particular, you have to be in the presence of 9 adult- and traditionally that means 9 male adult- Jews.
Minyan isn’t a word we hear very often in reform communities, and when it’s used it usually just denotes a smaller prayer gathering. Since our movement’s inception, minyan is one of the traditional Jewish ideas that has been up for discussion and reform. Most conversation in the progressive world centres around making sure anyone can be counted in a minyan, or the question of whether one is needed at all.
That stuff is interesting, but I want to focus in on something more essential- the notion that Minyan sets forth a powerful Jewish principle- there are some things that lie at at the very heart of being Jewish that you can only do in the presence of others. Woven into our practice is the notion that people need other people, that the presence of others makes things possible. A more universal reading of what minyan means is that there are things in life that you cannot do alone, that simply require a quorum of people around.
What feels particularly distinctive about the minyan model is that it isn’t one where people are called upon to do anything more than be present. Being with others is a kind of witnessing, it’s a gentle and perhaps even unobtrusive way of offering support and enabling a moment. In a world where more and more of our interaction is mediated by a third party- usually a screen- I think the minyan image is quite provocative. It doesn’t set out a list of small things we can do on our own to make a difference, but rather it calls for our presence, it calls us to show up- to see and be seen. It posits that something happens when we are there, when we are in the room.
The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas famously taught about the power of a face to face encounter. When we are confronted by the face of another, we become acutely aware of our own responsibility towards them. Their humanity and our consciousness of it compels us to feel accountable. In the room, our lives become intertwined. We become emotionally- and ethically- bound up with people, simply by virtue of encounter.
That’s what makes true presence so hard, because its demanding, because we have no idea what the person in front of us might need from us. As much as it makes presence hard, it’s also why it’s so powerful, because those encounters represent a reciprocal agreement. We become each other’s guarantors. Levinas quotes Rabbi Israel Salanter who used to say “Someone else’s material needs are my spiritual responsibility.”
When two people meet, his hope is that it represents some kind of covenant. At its most minimal, that covenant is ‘I won’t kill you if you don’t kill me”, but the other example Levinas brings is perhaps even more poignant this Shabbat, for he says that the face of the other asks of us “not to let him die alone, as if to do so were to become an accomplice in his death.”
I thought of these words in relation to our parasha this week. Chayei Sarah is well known as a bit of a misnamed parasha because though it is entitled the life of Sarah, it is actually mainly concerned with her death and its aftermath. It’s Isaac’s narrative that I find particularly striking as our story follows straight on from Isaac’s near sacrifice at the hands of his father.
If we return to the idea that the responsibility that flows from a face to face encounter with someone is at least the responsibility not to kill them, then the moment in which Isaac stares into his father’s eyes and sees only someone prepared to breach that covenant is devastating. It’s the ultimate betrayal- and from it, Isaac loses not only his relationship with his father, but he also loses his mother who dies in shock and pain at the news.
And then Isaac is alone. His mother’s tent is empty, and he is missing an essential loving and sustaining presence from his life. The only other person who had committed to being there, to not letting him die- or live- alone.
Thankfully, this alone-ness doesn’t last long. The last line of the chapter is one of the most tragically haunting- and also perhaps the most Freudian- in tanach. “And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for his mother.”
What was that comfort? It was the restoration of what had been lost before, the guaranteed presence of another.
Isaac isn’t necessarily any less wounded or fragile as a result of what he has been through, but he has something incredibly important- he once again has someone who has committed to be present and to accompany him through life.
The global Jewish community’s response to Pittsburgh was a call to #ShowUpForShabbat. It isn’t to say that beautiful words of tribute, or donations or activism aren’t also really important ways of coping and responding, but to acknowledge that physical presence is deeply affecting.
London Mayor Sadiq Kahn is in shul this morning, last night we were joined by a number of local politicians and activists from the wider community. On Monday members of the Somali Bravenese community came here to show their support. Last night in Washington DC, the queue for sixth and I synagogue went round the block and they had to put on an extra service. The same scene played out across America. People showed up, their presence with our community was a way of saying that they are here, with us, for us, that they are able to acknowledge our Issac-like fear of being alone in our moments of pain. And so people come, and demonstrated with their presence what words can only allude to.
And then there’s the internal Jewish experience. Minyan- the presence of a significant number of other Jews- isn’t just enabling on a ritual level, but for all the reasons discussed this morning it is a powerful social and emotional experience to be surrounded by others, other us’s. Others who get it, and who can witness each other’s distress and share each other’s desire for healing.
In Midrash Tanchuma, the Israelites gathered in the desert at the foot of mount Sinai are compared to a bundle of reeds. Individually, reeds are easily snapped or bent out of shape. But as a bundle, even if you apply great force, it is incredibly difficult to cause any damage at all. Israel, says the midrash, was only redeemed when they became a group- a bundle of reeds, because only then had they mastered the secret to group survival in spite of their weaknesses.
This past week has forced us to face up to our own reed like fragility, and I think the call to gather this Shabbat speaks to the sustaining experience of being wrapped up into a giant bundle called community. Just like the minyan makers, we are able to create something for each other simply by being present, by showing up. There will be plenty of time to do, to act, and to speak in the days and weeks ahead. Today, just being, just being here, giving each other the gift of presence, is perhaps the most important thing we can do for each other.
Cantor Zoe sang Santuary – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HjOioWTVAl4