I have a confession to make. Most days, I find it frustrating to daven in a minyan.
I daven too slowly, and I can’t help but admit that I get annoyed and frustrated when I am at shul because the minyan typically moves too fast for me to maintain the quick pace and still be able to concentrate on what I am saying with intention and understanding.
Recently, when I turned 53, I started wondering why I push myself go to shul instead of praying on my own at a pace I control and with a much higher capacity to be in the moment in yechidus with G-d.
The answer, I believe, rests with my younger brother Avi. He has been the catalyst at a few pivotal points of my life for moving the needle on my prayerful, if not overall religious and spiritual observance.
A few years ago, some unexpected things happened that affected my daily life. First was my newfound addiction to carbonated water. I wanted to stay away from soda and juice for health reasons and I couldn’t enjoy regular water anymore. Second, I started going to daily minyan for Mincha and Ma’ariv, and yes, I know I should be there for Shacharit too but that will be for another article.
As a newly minted pillar of the minyan, I wanted to understand what was sparking my desire to disrupt my preference for davening alone. As I started exploring my journey to davening and its uneven trajectory, I looked at my childhood experiences. Growing up in Miami Beach in what can best be described as a very “modern, yet Orthodox” community, davening was something we felt obligated to do in school, on Shabbat, or Sunday morning because our shul had a Sunday morning teen minyan effort with an art class afterward.
Looking back, I see now that as a young adult, I had not been trained to understand (or I was unwilling to apprehend or appreciate) that prayer was an opportunity to connect with G-d and that it would be best performed three times a day with at least nine other men in a minyan. This is not to say that the rabbis in my school didn’t try hard, but being one of the few Sabbath-observant boys in my grade didn’t make it easy for me to get that prayer was an opportunity to connect with Hashem all week long, let alone just on Shabbat.
This all started to change about 30 years ago when I spend three months in Israel studying Tanach and visiting places I was learning about, including working on an archaeological dig in an ancient Philistine city.
Avi came to visit and stayed with me in the Arzei HaBira neighborhood next to the Ohr Sameach Yeshiva where I was studying.
Avi had “frummed out” a few years earlier when he did his obligatory post-high school gap year at the newly created Sha’arei Yerushalayim (now Sha’arei Mevaseret Tzion) yeshiva. Each morning and afternoon, Avi would leave my apartment to go downstairs to a minyan that was available to anyone nearby.
Each time, I would look up at him and say “catch you later” and then bury myself back in my Torah Tapes and Hebrew-English Tanach. To this day, I still don’t know who I was fooling when I didn’t join him for an easy minyan.
He also tried to get me to say brachos on my foods – another thing I didn’t learn much about growing up. I was quite successful at tuning him out because my version of practicing “Modern, yet Orthodox” wasn’t only predicated on a limited effort in davening. Brachos were not on the agenda. Growing up, we thought brachos were for Shabbat meals and after lunch at school.
This is also not meant to be a dig on my parents. They did more than all their peers and we (and they) simply didn’t know then that “more was really less.” It still surprises me and my brother how my parents were able to instill so much religious observance in their children when almost none of their closest and oldest friends were Sabbath observant, let alone G-d fearing.
During Avi’s visit, even with all the opportunities he offered me, it simply didn’t register that I should daven more than just Shacharit each day (no way was I going to miss tefillin) or attend a minyan.
I wasn’t even pretending to daven three times a day at home. Brachot, minyan and three-times-a-day davening was always for the other guy. But with all my efforts to avoid Avi’s constant nagging, he eventually got through to me. He coaxed me out of my comfort zone. I can’t remember 30 years later if I went even more than one time downstairs with him. What I can remember, though, is the transformation that occurred during his visit.
I then earned my first religious moniker as the brachos and davening (B&D) man. Many of my American “Modern, yet Orthodox” friends who had moved to Israel in their early 20s after college were not ritually committed to prayer and brachos – so, like my parents, when I started saying brachos and davening three times a day, by comparison I stuck out so much from my peers that they gave me a nickname.
For a good 25 years, I managed to maintain the reputation as the B&D man, but the success I thought I was enjoying was all in my head because by now my peer group also included people going to minyan, saying brachos daily and doing many other mitzvot, like Tomchei Shabbat, that I didn’t know about in my childhood.
But I still wasn’t budging from my perch hiding at home or in the office and was unwilling to commit and move up the chain to do something more with regard to davening publicly in a minyan.
This reluctance to join a minyan started to dissipate about ten years ago when the second unexpected pivot occurred that redirected my comfortable religious routine at home. A small group of friends in my shul (Bnai David Judea in Los Angeles) started a Sunday morning chabura meeting to learn Mishnah before morning minyan. We would ultimately stay for Shacharit and one of us would volunteer to give the dvar Torah after services. Flash forward a few years and the chabura is long gone, but now through the process of attrition I have become the lone Sunday morning dvar Torah guy because our rabbi goes to a hashkama (sunrise) minyan so he can do some high-intensity bike riding with other health-conscious shul members on Sundays.
Missing Sunday morning now would be like missing tefillin. I have to be there. It’s not that my Torah is so awesome, but if I don’t show up, there may not be a dvar Torah. How can one have a religious gathering without a dvar Torah? Even the Chazan Cruise which my father and I attended in the early 2000’s had a dvar Torah before every cantorial concert.
Let’s jump to the present though because that’s really the crux of this piece. How did I transition from B&D man to being a pillar of the minyan community?
The explanation is my brother Avi again. And he didn’t even know it, nor did I until quite recently.
Avi is fascinated with the work performed by members of the Chevrah Kadisha in South Florida. These are the hidden heroes in every Jewish community who ensure that the proper kavod is given to each person that passes away. No Jewish burial is accomplished without the help of the Chevrah Kadisha community.
It’s a very private affair. It has to be. People do not talk about the awe-inspiring and totally necessary selfless work that they do.
But if you are friends with Avi, it means at least once in your life, he is going to hook you up with the Chevra Kadisha group and convince you to give up a night at the movies or your favorite restaurant to instead be part of a ritual tahara service, performed on someone before their burial can be performed.
In the same way that he convinced me decades ago to get out of my comfort zone and start davening and saying blessings, he also opened my eyes to the ritual washing of the deceased because he said, quite simply, someone is going to do it for you one day and therefore you should do it for someone else before you lose your chance. It is also the one mitzvah where the recipient cannot repay the favor.
We talk about his friends sometimes who bear the heavy burden of being on the Chevrah Kadisha team and that is how I experienced my most recent epiphany.
What I realized is that the team takes care of the bodies and prepares them for burial. What they don’t do necessarily is prepare the souls for the journey to the next world.
That preparation is done by the people saying Kaddish. The spouse, the child, the parent. Sometimes even the friend or distant relative or the person who gets paid to be a consistent Kaddish monument for the departed.
There is a theory in the saying of Kaddish that the person saying it is declaring to the world that he or she was raised to be a 613 Jew and to be a leader in the community (especially when Kaddish was recited by one person at a time). There is another thought that saying Kaddish moves the soul on its year-long journey from this world to the next world.
Whether you believe in one theory or another, there is one constant with Kaddish.
It has to be said in a minyan. It can’t be said at home alone. It doesn’t work without ten men. This last point is really hard for me too because my shul like many other Orthodox shuls in Los Angeles is very inclusive of and supportive of women’s religious observance opportunities. My wife and I used to have a daily date when she was saying Kaddish for her dad and I can say it was really painful that she couldn’t be counted to make the minyan when only nine men made it that day. I am not saying halacha should change, just expressing some empathy for the women who show up with all the right intentions but can’t be counted.
Some day, if I am lucky, I am going to be saying Kaddish before someone has to say it for me. I say lucky only in the sense that if someone is saying it for me, then their sadness couldn’t be avoided.
Until that day, I want to be sure that other people who need to say Kaddish won’t miss their opportunity because the minyan was short one person that day.
So, while the Chevra Kadisha team is taking care of the bodies, I and my team here in Los Angeles are taking care of their souls.
That’s what I tell myself to find the energy on those days I just want to be at home – and apparently this is why I have been going to minyan, even if it didn’t start out that way.
And yes, I still daven too slowly and hope G-d understands if I speed up once in a while.