We often begin Shabbat services with Mah Tovu, and the words “mah tovu o’halecha Yaakov” (“how wonderful are your tents, Jacob”) have exactly 10 syllables. When counting people for a minyan, one often assigns a syllable of this prayer to each person, rather than counting them. This deals with the tradition of not singling out anyone with a number, so as not to cast the evil eye on anyone.
If you have been involved in Jewish ritual life for a while you have experienced waiting in synagogue or in a house of mourning, hoping the 10th Jew would show up to make a minyan. Do you remember the television show “Northern Exposure”? For those of you who do not, it was about a Jewish doctor in a small, quirky Alaskan town. One episode stands out vividly in my mind. Dr. Fleishman has to say Kaddish for his uncle, and his friends try to round up nine other Jewish men in Alaska. They find some of the most eccentric Jews ever found on TV.
In the end, his friends in the community decide that they would become the minyan, allowing him to say Kaddish. His minyan of non-Jewish friends from the Alaskan village was not exactly kosher by halachic standards. But it makes the key point: The minyan represents the community.
In this week’s portion we are introduced to the notion of a minyan. Twelve men were sent to spy on the land of Canaan. Two had praise for it, and 10 spoke evil about the land and the Israelite’s chances of ever conquering it. God said, “How much longer shall this wicked community keep muttering against me?” From this we learn that a community is made up of 10 people.
Traditionally, a minyan was 10 Jewish men over the age of thirteen. Most non-Orthodox synagogues will also count women toward the requisite number. But however one counts them, a minyan represents the community.
A minyan is needed to read the Torah and recite some of our most important prayers, including the Mourner’s Kaddish. During the 11 months observant Jews say Kaddish for a family member, they do whatever is necessary to make sure there is a minyan available. There is nothing more frustrating than arriving in synagogue to say Kaddish and finding only eight or nine people. That is why it is such an important mitzvah to drop everything and help make a minyan.
The number 10 representing community comes up frequently in the Torah. Ten spies spoke evil about the land. Ten brothers threw Joseph into a pit and sold him into slavery. God promised Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah would be saved if 10 righteous people could be found. In the end, Abraham could not even find 10.
It is noteworthy that when the Torah speaks of community, it often refers to a community of evildoers. Sometimes it is too easy to become swept up in the community of people doing the wrong thing. In 1992 the Los Angeles riots followed the acquittal of Rodney King. At that time a group of men attacked and maimed truck driver Reginald Denny. They successfully argued in court that they were caught up in passions of the community, and were therefore not guilty.
The Torah teaches that we should not follow the community to do evil — yet community is vital from the Torah’s point of view. The sage Hillel taught, “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Avot 2:5). When a community is doing good, we need to join in. But when a community is doing evil, we need to stand apart.
So it should be for us: we stand to be counted for Shabbat, for prayer and for celebration. It’s a challenge that may seem difficult sometimes, but one that we must do to be a part of the community.
Rabbi Larry Raphael is the senior rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.