The minyan must go on

We had a blizzard in Boston this weekend. Two feet of snow, howling winds. The works.

The Works  (photo: Avi Rockoff)
The Works (photo: Avi Rockoff)

The day before the storm, Sid turned to me at shacharit and said, “I was watching the weather on TV, and the crawl underneath said, ‘Temple Shalva will be closed.’ Will we be canceling our minyanim?”

He was joking. Sid is like that.

Our shul has the standard lineup of minyanim: shacharit every morning, mincha-ma’ariv every late afternoon, late ma’ariv at 9 PM in the winter.

A daily minyan seems to fill its participants with a sense of mission. We treat it as something every traditional community just has to have. Missing even one minyan is not an option.

This kind of collective esprit is akin to that found in other spheres, like the theater (“The show must go on!”) or the postal service (“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night, etc.”) You might ask: So what if one performance is canceled? Who cares if letters get there a day late? (Only one day?) But those questions miss the point. Likewise, everyone–every individual–skips a minyan now and then. But for a community to fail to put together a quorum of ten men is a collective embarrassment. Minyanim don’t get canceled unless getting to them poses risks that are literally life-threatening, like 15-foot storm surges from a Hurricane Sandy that could wash pedestrians away.

Another crucial dimension to a minyan, of course, is that having one allows a chiyuv to say kaddish. At times of misfortune, we run a second concurrent minyan (and sometimes a third) at houses of shiva. For a smallish group like ours, that can be somewhat strenuous. People who don’t come regularly need to show up. They always do. Though not always on time.

The factors that make canceling a minyan out of the question are communal, not personal. Individuals who daven may find their prayer meaningful, or they may not. Few would describe a daily minyan, with its rigid format and rapid pace, as a hotbed of spirituality. Our body language often suggests that we really want to do is to get to work in the morning or, if we’ve been waiting till 9:30 at night for the tenth man, go home.

But, as we are taught, mitoch shelo lishma ba lishma. If you keep at something, purer intention may come later. Even if you keep at it there is no guarantee the purer intention will come. But of course if you don’t keep at it, you’re guaranteed it won’t.

The Shul (photo: Avi Rockoff)
The Shul (photo: Avi Rockoff)

We are also taught that Hazal decided that gadol hametzuveh v’oseh mimi she’eino metzuveh v’oseh, someone who is obligated to perform a mitzvah and does so is preferred to one who does it voluntarily.

Why they ruled that way can be debated, but it does seem true, if ironic, that individuals seeking personal meaning may need to rely at times on communities that run on humdrum, ritualized obligation. Go figure.

Our shul also has a different kind of minyan that meets on some Friday nights and features group choral singing aimed at fostering more intense spiritual expression. That was scheduled to meet this Friday, but was canceled on account of the weather.

Presumably, the organizers assumed that the shul’s regular minyan would carry on. They were correct.

The blizzard is over. The sun is out now, glinting on mountains of snow.

Theaters were dark. Mail went undelivered.

No regular minyanim were canceled.

About the Author
Avi Rockoff lives in Newton, Massachusetts