Dec 09 2012

The Importance of the Individual : Why Eleven Jews Don’t Make a Minyan

Published by at 8:38 pm under Uncategorized

Parshat Vayeira

In this week’s Torah portion, known as V’yeira, the Torah recounts for us a flurry of activity involving the Patriarchs – all of it having ramifications on the story of the Jewish people for generations to come. As usual, however, the Torah does not tell us tales to serve simply as a History book, but rather to serve as a guide and a manual for Jewish life.  While it is crucial to know the stories and commentaries in depth, one who simply learns the Bible on a scholarly level, without absorbing the ethical and moral teachings it offers, is missing out on a major part of the task of a Jew.

Our Rabbis tell us that “the actions of our forefathers are signs for their children.” This can be taken literally – Abraham went to Egypt and so did we, the Jewish people were in exile for many years, and we their ancestors have followed in their footsteps. But I believe that this statement can and should be taken figuratively as well. Perhaps it is not only the physical actions that are a sign for us, but the spiritual, ethical and righteous characteristics, that these devout men and women possessed, have been  transmitted throughout the generations in the form of so to speak, a Jewish DNA.

There is, arguably, no greater example of this phenomenon that the incident of the destruction of the wicked city of Sodom, recounted for us in this week’s reading.

The scripture tells us that people of Sodom were beyond salvation, they were wicked – particularly in the  way they treated each other ( which is a paradigm is Jewish behavior ) Nonetheless, before going ahead with his plans, the Lord informs Abraham of his intentions, as he knows that Abraham will try to defend these cities. What happens next is a fascinating dialogue between Abraham and Hashem, one of my favorite passages in the Torah. (Not sure if one is allowed to have favorites )   

God, says Abraham, I know there are thousands of wicked people in Sodom, but let me ask you, if we could find fifty righteous people among them, would you save the city?

Yes, answers, the Almighty, for fifty righteous, I’ll save the city.

Hashem, please don’t be angry with me, but what if we are short five from the fifty.

Yes, says the Lord, I’ll save the city for forty Five.

Abraham, seeing that he’s on a roll, and that God seems to be in a merciful mood – pushes the envelope again…

What about forty

Yes, says the Almighty





And finally , What if we find ten righteous people in the city

Yes, Abraham, for a Minyan, ten good people I will save the city.

In the final outcome, we are told that there were no ten righteous, and the cities were eradicated and never rose again.

Rabbi Berel Wein, my revered Rabbi and teacher points out a fascinating insight into the story of Sodom and into human character and nature. Sodom, says my Rebbe, was not destroyed because of the thousands of corrupt and immoral people. It was destroyed, in fact, because there weren’t to be found, ten good people. What a novel concept…thousands of citizens who committed some of the greatest atrocities known to mankind, yet ten righteous among them would have prevented their annihilation.

What emerges from this insight is the importance of each and every person in the world, and that in the Jewish world each person’s contribution is unique, and therefore essential to carry on our mission. We live, unfortunately, in a society where people do not value their individuality and most don’t feel that they make a difference. We live in a democratic society, a country that allows us to make our opinions know, yet less than half of the population votes on Election Day, even though their voice could make a difference. We live in a world of statistics, instead of real numbers. Polls are taken by using sample data instead of real evidence.

There is the famous story of the town that had exactly ten Jews in it. Every morning in synagogue they managed to get a Minoan. (Quorum of ten to pray in a communal service) Everybody knew that they counted, so they made absolutely sure to be there, lest the people couldn’t begin the service. One day an eleventh Jew moved into town, and the next day there was no Minyan! Because everybody said that now we have an extra person, and therefore they don’t need me.

In Judaism we say, that we do need you. There are no extra Jews in the world, and therefore each and every one of us has a unique task and contribution that we can make to this world. The Talmud says, that just as no two people look the same, which to me is one of the marvels and a virtual proof  of creation; so too, no two people have the same intellectual, spiritual or philosophical components as anyone else in this world. What I can offer to the world, you cannot, and what you can offer, I cannot – and therefore, everyone must see themselves as personal ambassadors of God who were put on this earth for a very special mission.

Abraham is able to get God to, so to speak, acquiesce, if he finds ten who are righteous. Ten who are righteous can save the city, because if there is a quorum of good people. One individual group – they have the strength to overturn a heavenly degree, on the basis that they can reform the city. All too often, we underestimate our strength and the influence we can have over others. Whether we know or not, whether we like it or not – every Jew is a light, not only to the nations, but to his/her fellow Jew. If we act in an appropriate manner, strive for nuggets of spirituality, and aim to live as moral, decent and honest people, so these virtues are contagious, and have an exponential and cosmic effect to all who are among us.

If ten of us have the power to save a Sodom, what shall we say about the potential that the twelve million Jews in our world have to change the universe by adding to their spirituality? Adding, by learning a bit more and by slowly committing to take on an extra Mitzvah when they are ready.
How do we maximize our spiritual potential, and make the world a better place?

One Jew at a Time!