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An Unseemly Hour


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It’s my first moment of wakefulness, and I’m chilled to the bone. Pull the covers over myself, I’m thinking, while I decide to roll over to look at the clock. It’s 5:30 a.m. and I’m exhausted. But I have a blissful joy because I can pull the covers over myself. Yes, I can go back to sleep.

The reset alarm goes off at 7 a.m. and I awake yet again, this time with more energy. I feel a bit warmer and get out of bed. A half-hour later, showered and dressed, I put on my tallis and tefillin, daven Shacharis and drive to work.

After work, I attend shul for Mincha and Ma’ariv. The late afternoon starting time of 4:30 (it’s winter) is much more reasonable than Shacharis at 6:15 a.m. At Ma’ariv’s end, the rabbi announces that his wife wants to go on a skiing vacation. He expresses his desire not to go, and instead learn and teach – all the while helping make the weak morning minyan stronger with his presence. But it’s important that he listen to his wife, so they’re leaving on Sunday.

I have a foreboding that the rabbi is about to ask all of us to make every effort to gather a minyan while he’s away, given the difficulty to do so even when he’s present.

When I think of difficulties, waking up at 5:30 a.m. comes to mind. I practically freeze up when thinking of the prospect of leaving the car at home (there’s no parking near the shul) and walking eight blocks through a biting wind. Please don’t ask this of us, rabbi, as every nerve in my body tells me to go back to sleep.

“I am asking all of you to attend one extra Shacharis minyan next week,” the rabbi implored us. “If you usually come four times, please come five times. If you come once, come twice. If you usually don’t come at all, come to one.”

Leave it to my rabbi to make such a reasonable request. Had he asked us to come every morning, I would have passed it off as pie in the sky and ecstatically slept the extra hour and a half. But since the rabbi has been good to me, I answered in the affirmative when he asked for a show of hands as to who would adhere to his appeal. Attending morning minyan – even once – is the least I could do. The day to fulfill my commitment would be the next day.

Due to considerably less sleep that I’m about to get (rest I could use, as the grind of working in a nursing home takes its physical toll), I am in a bad mood for a while. My disposition improves somewhat when I keep telling myself that it’s only one morning. I’m asleep by about 11 p.m.

Here we go again. I awake at the unseemly hour of 5:30 a.m., and I’m chilled to the bone. I’m exhausted, so I go back to sleep. But a minute later – yes, literally a minute later – the alarm sounds. I squint and wonder if someone is playing a trick on me.

Oh, how I wish that I had amnesia concerning my pledge to the rabbi. But against the will of every bone in my body, I resist the temptation of more sleep – and the warmth and comfort that come with it – and within 25 minutes I’m out the door, tallis and tefillin in hand.

I remember that there is no legal parking near the shul at this time of day, so my trek begins on what I’m convinced is the coldest day of the year.

Quite unfairly, I imagine my rabbi and his wife at a chalet sitting in front of a crackling fireplace. Such thoughts do nothing to ease the pain of the biting wind in my face, which seems to be biting into everything except my resolve to follow through on what the rabbi asked of me.

After what seemed like an eternity of walking (actually 20 minutes), I approached the shul. Walking in, I felt great warmth – both from the wintry weather outdoors and when cheery congregants said good morning and expressed their happiness at seeing me. I don’t think I was ever happier to walk into a synagogue.

I was also glad to be fulfilling my obligation to help make the minyan. And when the last “amen” was said at the davening’s conclusion, I could have danced a jig to celebrate my sense of accomplishment.

As I headed out the shul door, I heard wishes between others to have a good day and how they looked forward to seeing each other the next morning. But this didn’t apply to me, so when I faced the cold biting air I was warmed by the thought of where I would be and what I would be doing in 24 hours.

To be sure, I was a little more tired that day than usual. But the satisfaction of having helped the rabbi gave me a boost, and, as much as I didn’t want to admit it, so did davening with nine other Jews.

As I set my alarm that night for 7 a.m. the next morning, I hoped that the required 10 men would gather the following morning to form a minyan. I told myself that that wasn’t my problem, since I had done what I was asked to do. My last waking thought: now I can sleep!

I awake at 5:30 a.m. (any message here?), and exult at the thought of rolling over and falling back asleep. But for some reason I can’t.

I think of my rabbi, but this time he is not sitting in a chalet with his wife in front of a crackling fireplace. No, he’s putting on his tallis and tefillin at the ski lodge and he has a worried look on his face. He’s thinking, “Will my shul get a minyan?”

Then I think about how awake I am, unable to fall back to sleep. I recall how, despite seemingly impossible odds, I had pulled myself from under the covers and made it to minyan the day before. Having proven to myself that I could do it the day before, I knew I could do it again today.

My desire strong, I got out of bed. And once again, I was out the door 25 minutes later. And even though it was still colder than the prior morning, nothing was going to stop me now.

I made the minyan regularly during the rest of the rabbi’s absence. When he returned, he seemed genuinely moved when I told him of my achievement.

Since then, I’ve attended minyan week after week and year after year. For the most part I’ve been making Shacharis minyan for the last 20 years – on hot and cold days, and those in-between.

Had the rabbi asked me to commit to minyan attendance for the whole week, I probably would have done nothing. But he didn’t ask for much, so I went the distance.

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