Last week for various reasons, none of which were connected to my piety, I arrived at the synagogue for the morning prayers service very early – so early in fact that I was the one who unlocked the gates of the synagogue for entry. As I sat there alone in the synagogue waiting for the rest of our faithful to arrive, I looked around the synagogue room. In my mind’s eye I was no longer alone for now I glimpsed all of my minyan companions that I have known over the past many decades in Chicago, Miami Beach, Monsey and here in Jerusalem.
I was amazed that I now remembered so many of them, their appearances, words, habits and individual traits and peculiarities. Eerily but also comfortably, I no longer felt alone in that spacious empty room. I believe that such hallucinations are indicative of the years that I have achieved but nevertheless they were of great effect and importance to me.
They reinforced my lifelong belief that Jews should never feel utterly alone and abandoned. The unseen minyan is as important to our souls and well being as is the visible and real one. Over the last few years the inexorable fate of time has transferred many of my friends from the seen minyan to the unseen minyan. But now suddenly in the early morning light of that synagogue room it was the unseen minyan that was present.
I saw them in their prayer shawls and tefilin, in their contributions to the charity box and in their friendly countenances and good cheer. I saw my teachers and students, my father and my congregants and synagogue officers, my teaching and rabbinic colleagues – the synagogue prayer room was crowded and full. But they were all participants in that unseen minyan of mine.
As the members of the real minyan arrived and the prayer service commenced, the unseen minyan faded away. It is difficult to hold on to the unseen minyan when the real one is actively functioning. Yet during the prayer service, I thought that it is obvious that no Jew prays alone. Aside from the active minyan that surrounds the one who is praying there is an unseen minyan that also participates in one’s prayers.
That influence can be very great. It is this chain of the past that has shaped each and every one of us. I wonder if that unseen minyan approves of my prayer or even of me personally as I now am. Transferring to the unseen minyan now changes their relationship to me. They now have the right to be judgmental about my actions and me. And, to me, they now have become examples and role models and no longer the members of the peer group to which we once belonged together.
None of them were perfect for there are no perfect humans but each one of them had a special quality that deserves to be remembered and emulated. In fact that is the efficacy of a minyan itself – it combines all of the special qualities of those present and studiously and purposely ignores their individual human imperfections.
When I recited the Amida that morning I understood why the Men of the Great Assembly began that prayer by referring to the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. I realized that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the original founders and members of our unseen minyan. It is they who are our role models and teachers and they are the main influences in our lives and hopes.
Our real minyan cannot really function too well if the unseen minyan is somehow not also present in our prayer room and in our hearts and souls. In fact it dawned upon me that our unseen minyan numbered in the thousands and millions. All of Jewish history and tradition has come to pray with us and strengthen us in continuing the chain of Sinai.
Once we realize that we are not alone in this endeavor - that it is not only the ten or twenty people before us, but that we are aided and helped by so many generations that have preceded us, only then we can view our tasks and challenges with greater equanimity and confidence.
Knowing and believing that we are never truly alone and that together with our unseen minyan, God, so to speak, also accompanies us on our life’s journey, will certainly improve our outlook on life and our payers.