Pluralistic Perspectives Blessing for the Month of Tammuz & Juneteenth

By Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld
Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld looking out a window

“The world lies between people and this in-between . . . is today the object of the greatest concern and the most obvious upheaval in almost all the countries of the globe . . . [M]ore and more people . . . have retreated from the world and their obligations within it. This withdrawal from the world need not harm an individual; he may even cultivate great talents to the point of genius and so by a detour be useful to the world again. But with each such retreat an almost demonstrable loss to the world takes place; what is lost is the specific and usually irreplaceable in-between which should have formed between this individual and his fellow men.”

Hannah Arendt, On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts About Lessing

These words, written by Hannah Arendt in 1959, have been pursuing me lately, tugging at me every time I am tempted to retreat from the world and my obligations within it.

Faced with an unrelenting news cycle (not to mention an unrelenting inbox) and problems both local and global that feel immense, intractable and impossibly complex, I find myself wanting to withdraw from the weight of the world more often than I care to admit.

Of course, there is an appropriate — and essential — place for periods of retreat in our lives. We need this. We need to experience a day punctuated by moments of quiet contemplation; to experience a week punctuated by Shabbat; to experience a year punctuated by time set aside for rest and renewal.

But as we move into the first day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, which happens to coincide this year with Juneteenth, I want to recommit myself to tending the in-between, caring for the world that lies between us.

During the month of Tammuz, we enter a period in the Jewish calendar (the three weeks from the Seventeenth of Tammuz to the Ninth of Av) which reminds us, all too darkly, of what happens when the world that lies between us comes apart at the seams. When we turn away from, rather towards, one another and allow indifference, intolerance, and violence to grow and fill the spaces between us. This is the kind of withdrawal from the in-between that destroys lives, destroys temples, destroys worlds.

Juneteenth also carries within it a powerful reminder — of the life-denying brutality that is allowed to flourish when we retreat from our obligations to the world, and of the life-giving possibilities that become real when we lean into our responsibilities to and for each other.

There are countless ways in which Jewish tradition seeks to remind us that we cannot be fully human alone. The concept of minyan — the requirement of a quorum of at least ten adult (traditionally, male) Jews to recite certain prayers — is one of the most concrete expressions of our need for one another. The Talmud goes so far as to say that if ten people pray together the Divine Presence is with them. One might say that the divine presence dwells in the in-between.

Why the number ten? As it turns out, rabbinic tradition traces the number ten for a minyan back to last week’s Torah portion and the story of the spies sent by Moses to scout out the land of Canaan. Twelve men are sent — one from each tribe. Two, Joshua and Caleb, return with a good, hopeful and heartening report. The other ten sow seeds of terror and doubt among the people.

God is enraged: “How long will this evil assembly — this edah ra’ah — provoke the people to complain against Me?” The word “edah” in this verse is understood to refer to the ten spies who return to the people with their message of despair. From here it is deduced that an assembly — a minyan — is comprised of ten.

Why would this group of ten spies, not a group that we would seek to emulate, be cited as the source for the idea of minyan? Couldn’t one find a more inspiring prooftext?

Indeed, people often think that the requirement of ten for a minyan is derived from the story of Sodom and Gemorrah, in which Abraham negotiates with God and elicits an agreement that, if ten righteous men are found, the cities will be spared. At first glance, this might seem like a more promising source. But, on reflection, I don’t think so. After all, basing the laws of minyan on the story of Sodom and Gemorrah might lead us to believe that we are obligated to pray with ten righteous people. We might think, surely it is better for me to pray alone than to pray with these jerks. Or, conversely, we might think, I am not worthy to pray with this minyan.

No! says the story of the spies. The question at the heart of our lives together in community is not: Are these people good enough for me? Or am I good enough for these people? The question is: What might we see in each other? What do we elicit in and from each other? Who can we become together?

This is what is at stake in the act of coming together as a minyan. We come together not as a righteous remnant, as the story of Sodom and Gemorrah might suggest. We come together not because we are all already holy, as Korach will suggest in this week’s parsha. We come together as a community because we are always becoming, together, as a community, seeing and therefore influencing each other in profound ways. We may hurt each other, or we may offer help. We may inflame fears, reflect and reinforce despair, or we may elicit possibilities, invite imagination, awaken hope.

On this Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, and Juneteenth, may we renew our commitment to bringing loving attention and daily care to the world that lies between us. And may the in-between become a place of healing and of hope.

Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld is President of Hebrew College in Newton, MA.

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