From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

To Make a Minyan

Marriage is an edifice that must be rebuilt every day.

André Maurois

Danny was a runner. He’d fly out of bed at 5:30, throw on his running clothes and bound out the door, leaving his wife Marti asleep. Danny had once resented Marti’s not joining him on his run, sharing what was so important to him. But after twelve years, she had her things, and he had his.

He’d run out of the comfortable suburb toward the city, a world of broken glass and shuttered storefronts. When his watch beeped he’d turn around and thread his way back through the maze of industrial buildings until he found a familiar route home. Then he’d shower and dress, grab a cup of coffee, and drive to his counseling appointments at the Veteran’s Administration hospital.

On Monday and Thursday mornings, he’d finish jogging early so he could go to minyan at synagogue—a quick, businesslike minyan populated mostly by old men, but also by a few women and several middle-aged guys. His shul hadn’t gone without a minyan in two years thanks, in part, to himself.

One Thursday morning Danny jogged as usual into the deteriorating streets of the city. Turning a corner, Danny faced a long block of old tenements and small stores. Out of the shadows stepped the figure of a man. Danny jogged into the street as the figure came slowly into focus. The old man, wearing a black, wide-brimmed hat and a long black coat, his beard grizzled and shaggy, waved his arms like a policeman stopping traffic. He jumped into the street to block Danny’s way.

The old man shouted as if Danny were deaf. “We need a tenth! For the minyan, we need a tenth! It’s a mitzvah to be the tenth! You maybe need a mitzvah?

Jogging in place to keep his rhythm, Danny mumbled breathlessly, “I can’t, this is my run! I’ll be late for shul! ” And with that he zipped around the old man and shot down the street.

Back home, Danny thought about the incident, wondering if the stranger had even been real. “If so, why did he need a minyan? What could I have been thinking? Why didn’t I stop?”

At shul, Danny greeted the others inside the small sanctuary and began putting on his tefillin, methodically wrapping the worn leather straps around his arm the prescribed number of times, making the blessings at each appropriate moment. The beautiful chanting of prayers began, the melody laid down over millennia. Davening rose and fell in a counterpoint of different voices. The Torah Scroll was taken out of the Holy Ark, and paraded around the congregation. Each person touched it reverently with the strings of their prayer shawls or with their prayer books, then kissed the strings or book. Suddenly, Danny wished Marti were there.

The selection for the day was read. As the service came to an end, the rabbi looked up and spoke. This took Danny by surprise; the minyan was usually in too much of a hurry for sermons. But this morning was different. The rabbi seemed to look directly at Danny.

“I was reading this morning a passage from an old sage who said that each of us will have an opportunity to receive a message from On High. And that most of us do not recognize that message and go on unheedingly. Perhaps, today, my friends, you could be on the lookout for such a message and try not to miss it if it should arrive.”

All day these words bothered Danny. He canceled his afternoon appointments and drove home. He drove the path of his morning run, looking for the spot where the old man had confronted him. But nothing looked the same. He even tried running the path he’d taken that morning, without luck. At home, Marti noticed his mood. “Hey, honey, what’s up?” she asked.

Danny was having difficulty explaining this story to himself, let alone to someone else. Especially Marti. The stresses in their marriage had been rising in the last six months and their closeness was waning; sometimes they were like strangers. Danny the psychotherapist, the religious Jew, the Vietnam veteran, felt vulnerable enough without looking like he was having a breakdown.

“It’s nothing,” he said abruptly. “Just things from work.” He watched Marti look away, wounded.

For weeks after that, Danny jogged up the hilly streets into town searching for that lost place, the Street of The Old Man. He bought a map and tried to puzzle it out with highlighter again and again, until the overlapping colors became a mass of confusion. Danny knew he had to stop.

“Rabbi,” he said very softly, “I need your time. Are you free now?”

They sat in the rabbi’s tiny study, facing each other across the cluttered desk. “Nu, Danny?”

Danny struggled to begin, but finally the story poured out, ending in a long silence. The rabbi nodded. “Perhaps it’s all a great parable. Let’s also say this old man was not a figment of your imagination. Perhaps there was a death in a family and they needed a tenth for the minyan. It would have been a real mitzvah to make the tenth. Maybe you feel guilty because you refused.”

Danny bristled.

“But,” continued the rabbi quietly, “let’s pretend that the old man’s appearance was actually a message from On High. What do you think the message was?”

Danny felt annoyed at hearing the kind of question he had so often asked his own therapy patients. But the rabbi’s words hit home.

“The message . . .” Danny said slowly. “The old man was telling me, ‘I see you’re in the middle of your run on the way to your minyan. But right now I need your help.’ And I ran right past his words.”

“Yes,” the rabbi said, “but maybe you just have to run to the right place to hear such a message. Here.” The rabbi smiled, tapping his chest. “Maybe it isn’t a stranger who needs you, Danny.”

Danny didn’t remember the drive back home from shul. He didn’t remember parking the car or running through the house to Marti’s ceramic studio. He found himself standing before her open door.

Marti looked up from her wheel and smiled, clay dripping from her fingers and caked on her nose. Danny saw the sweet vulnerability he’d fallen in love with years ago, and felt a lump rise in his throat.

“Marti, could you do me a favor?”

“Sure, honey. Is everything okay?” She stopped the pottery wheel.

“Would you come with me?” Danny hesitated, then stepped inside her doorway.

“What about the hospital, your patients? What’s going on?”

“I’m not sure, but I think I’ve been running too much.”

“You’re not hurt?” Marti asked, alarmed.

“Only from running away from my heart,” Danny said. “And from you. Is there a chance we could try again? Not running, just walking.” Danny reached out his hand.

“A mitzvah worth waiting for,” Marti said, with warmth. She rose from the potting wheel, tears starting down her face, and threw her arms around Danny, dripping wet clay everywhere. “I’ve been waiting to take that walk for a long time.”

Hanoch McCarty

Reprinted by permission of Rabbi Henry Rabin.

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