We are re-starting minyanim! This is very exciting news! How we are starting, how many people in each minyan, what ages, which genders, what are the protocols, how should the prayer space be structured, how should the sifrei Torah be handled? There are so many issues that every community needs to examine when starting up minyanim to make sure that they are being operating in a manner that cares for the spiritual and physical needs of its members.
There are many people who shouldn’t yet participate in communal prayer. Those who are ill, high risk, or who have any COVID-19 symptoms should not attend. Those who are concerned about shul attendance due to COVID-19 should not feel any pressure to participate. The status of minyan now in many communities is more of an option as opposed to a requirement. Under normal circumstances, the Shulchan Aruch writes ‘yishtadel,’ that a man should strive to pray with a minyan and is only excused from doing so if it’s an unavoidable circumstance. However, now due to health concerns, one can legitimately excuse himself from praying if he doesn’t feel safe attending a minyan.
But for those who are eligible to participate, there is something unique about the phase-one re-opening of minyanim. In many communities, during this phase, a person can’t just show up to minyan. Everyone needs to register. And for men in particular, registering as a minyan attendee means that you are committing to come on time because during this first phase, many minyanim are limited to ten men. If we can only have ten men at each minyan and one person doesn’t show up at all or he doesn’t show up on time, then we can’t recite kaddish, kedusha, chazarat ha’shatz, kriat hatorah, etc.
Once you require registration and prompt and complete attendance, then, you are not only excluding from minyan the sick and the high risk individuals, but you are likely excluding anyone who prefers to be “JFK,” or “Just For Kiddush.” For those community members who saw shul as a means to connect socially with their community, and less as a vehicle for connecting to ritual and prayer, where will the present circumstances leave them?
After all, in truth, there are different things that we have all felt lacking, when we desperately missed coming to shul during the past two months. Some of us have missed the power of the community, the ability to stand together shoulder to shoulder with a fellow Jew who may be different but say the same words and pray to the same God and create that powerful medium called tefillah b’tzibbur. We realize that the power and the beauty of prayer is that our prayer is far more effective when we pray as a community and even if individually we may have some imperfections, the fact that we pray as a congregation compensates for that. Indeed, the source for having ten men constitute a minyan is the fact that the ten spies are called a “congregation.” The ten spies were certainly not known for being perfect. But that’s the beauty of prayer, that even if each of us is lacking in some way, the merit of others with whom we pray benefits us all.
We appreciate the value of tefillah b’tzibbur in that it connects us to each other and creates a community of prayers, i.e., people who pray. The Rambam writes in connection with tefilla, tzarikh l’shatef et atzmo im hatzibbur, a person needs to connect himself to the community and kol mi she’yaish lo beit haknesset b’iro v’aino mitpallel bo im hatzibbur nikra shakhen ra, or anyone who has a shul in his town and does not pray there with the community is called a bad neighbor. Rav Soloveitchik points out that he is not called a bad person but a bad neighbor because we are supposed to work cohesively for the betterment of our neighborhood, our community, our people, and the world at large. Some contribute their capacity for kavana and some for their ability to lead the davening. Everyone contributes something and the final product is a community of kedusha, a community of holiness, a community that becomes more attuned to the power and meaning of tefillah.
However, many of us have also missed coming to shul for the social component of being part of a community. We are all social beings and we simply miss each other. We miss spending time with each other, catching up once a week with each other. We feel so alone without a weekly social gathering in our “beit ha-knesset”, in our place of gathering. In all likelihood, many of us fall into both of these categories, longing for both the power of communal prayer and the comfort and familiarity of our communal social life.
One might expect that for the “JFK” or the “socially orthodox” Jews, this first stage in re-opening minyanim is not that meaningful. One could think that this early stage with all its requirements would not have much appeal, due to the necessary commitment to wake up earlier and be on time for minyan, without the benefit of Kiddush afterwards or easy socialization.
But I would argue just the opposite. This phase is a tremendous opportunity for those who have difficulty connecting with God in shul. Phase one of re-opening minyanim is a chance for a clean re-start in our relationship with davening, not just for those who feel connected, but especially for those who don’t typically feel connected to structured communal prayer. For whatever reason, some of us just fell into a routine of not taking advantage of the beautiful opportunity that tefillah b’tzibbur affords us as food for the soul. Phase one is a new opportunity to perhaps relive a time when we felt more connected, when we found meaning in our tefillot, before we developed our current habit of just going through the motions. It’s hard work to transform ourselves and return to God and to our former selves and sometimes we must start in stages. The staging to re-open minyanim is a perfect opportunity to re-connect, especially for those who haven’t done so in a while.