Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Morning 'Benji' Made Minyan

The "tsenter", the tenth man required to complete a minyan is much sought after, who enjoys an almost enviable position. It is he, after all, who makes it all come together, as it were. Without him, certain prayers, which require a minyan, a religious quorem of ten adult men, may not be said. Imagine holding in one's hands the power to prevent nine other Jews from hearing the Borechu, the repetition of the Shmoney Esrei, the Kedusha and all of the Kaddishim! That's quite a lot of prayer deprivation! And what is it that some cynics say about the inability of one person to make a difference?

To be the tenth man is, indeed, a weighty honor. At least nine other men await him eagerly. They welcome him to a degree unlike that accorded themselves. It's such an odd thing, in part because it represents a complete inversion of our usual cultural standard that takes a rather dim view of tardiness. Whereelse would you expect to find the accolades and adoration showered upon anyone else but the tsenter, a man who, by definition, is not only "last" but, in many instances, late?

Probably no where else but in an orthodox shul.

There are probably no more diametrically opposed character types within the world of orthodox minyonim than the "schlichim" and the "tsenter". As unfortunate as it may seem to say this, it has been my vastly limited experience that the typical schliach is a borderline nudnik; in most cases, he is a seemingly perfectly able man who-clutching his green plastic laminated cards-arrives at the shul in some instances driving very new and expensive cars, rentals I presume. He walks about the beis medrash during the recitation of morning prayers soliciting from each and every man contributions of tzedakah to his favorite cause-himself.

Often traveling in groups, outfitted in black caftans and a variety of styles of black hats, most of these schlichim are men who "learn", I imagine, in yeshiva-the majority of which I'd venture to say are in Eretz Yisroel, judging from the few words they utter-few seem to be American-born. It's an ancient Jewish custom to financially assist talmidei chachomim, the origin of which is with the commercially successful Tribe of Zebulun who supported the scholarly Tribe of Issachar. Not everyone is cut out to be a talmid chochem; it is nothing more than a simple fact of life. However, that fact alone obligates those of us who are not to support those who are. And I can deal with that. I guess it's their presumption of entitlement that annoys me. Perhaps if they brought in a dozen donuts or donated a bottle of good schnappes to the shul once in a while, I might warm up to them. Or even the radical idea of davening with the minyan on occasion might well benefit them.

Far fewer are those who arrive in shul looking somewhat disheveled, downcast and genuinely needy although there is one young man, named "Benji" who shows up every now and then who certainly is in need of assistance from his fellow Jews-not to sit and learn, but clearly to make ends meet. He is a young man who is probably in his mid-twenties and clearly showing the signs of emotional disability.

With a look of mental disorderliness about him that may be due to a failure to adhere to his medication regimen, he unmistakingly is a genuinely needy soul. One needs only glance at such a person to come away thankful for all of life's blessings. Indeed it is a fortunate fact of Jewish communal life that there is such a strong institutionalized tradition of tzedaka in place-that a fellow such as Benji can come to shul in the morning, when there are typically more worshippers, and leave with at least a few extra dollars in pocket.

This is the way it is and most probably, will always be.

But just last Friday, when for reasons unknown, the count of the morning minyan had stopped at nine plus "Benji" who-on any other given morning-might well have left after his collections-given a plentitude of men comprising the minyan, but this last Friday morning was "schvach"-slow indeed. The redeeming element here was the fact that young Benji-not unmindful of the fact that had he left just then, the minyan, of which he was the un-official tzenter, would have been reduced to nine, unable to move forward.

"Should I stick around to help make the minyan?" Benji asked of the quiet gentleman next to whom he was standing, a Kohein as a matter of fact, who not only knew Benji but referred to him as his friend whom- he made it known-the members of the minyan should help out.

"Yes, that would be good," he advised. "Did you bring your t'filin?" he asked, smilingly, but only half jokingly because Benji was not inclined, perhaps even unable to "don" tefilin. Mind you, his friend, the Kohein, knew this of course but only sought to make Benji feel like one of "the guys", who just so happened to have "forgotten" his t'philin that morning. And so Benji stayed long enough in any case for the first two kaddishim to be pronounced, after which two additional men arrived.

I studied carefully the expression on Benji's face as the kaddishim were being read, and I espied a clearly discernible look of great self-satisfaction. He was, at least, for the while an exceedingly important man! With the arrival of the two additional men, Benji was, as it were, released. Should he have left then, there still would have been a minyan plus one. So he did, he left, but before he stepped outside the beis medrash, Benji stopped to count, just to make sure that ten there would at least be upon his leaving. He left, with some much needed money in pocket and, I hope, the satisfaction that on this morning, he was able to give back as well as receive.


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