One of the basic truths of living a Jewish life is that it requires other people. Observing Shabbat, keeping kosher, celebrating holidays, and even giving tzedakah and following ethical business practices all are only possible in the context of community. But what counts as a community? How many is enough?
One answer lies in the idea of the minyan, the group of 10 people required according to Jewish law in order to say certain prayers and perform certain rituals. Why 10 people? The answer to that question can teach us a great deal about what it means to live in community with each other.
There are two places in the Torah where a group of 10 people plays a crucial role. The first is in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, when Abraham argues with God that the city of Sodom should be saved because, while many people there may be wicked, there may be a number of good people among them (Genesis 18:17-33). God agrees that if there are 50 good people there, the city will be spared.
Abraham goes further and asks, “What about 45? 40? 30? 20? 10?” Each time, God agrees; even if only 10 good people are found in Sodom, the city deserves to be saved. Significantly, Abraham does not go below 10. Apparently, 10 good people would be enough to have an effect on even a city like Sodom.
The second place in the Torah that a group of 10 looms large is in this week’s portion, Shelach Lecha, during the story of the spies. The Israelites send 12 spies — one from each tribe — to investigate the Land of Israel. Two of them, Caleb and Joshua, come back singing the praises of the land.
The other 10 spies, however, bring back a much different report. They argue that while the land may look attractive on the outside, it hides serious dangers that will destroy the Israelites. They encourage the people to turn back to Egypt and to abandon the journey they have been on to the Promised Land. These 10 spies are turning away not only from the leadership of Moses but also from God, and the Torah does not shy away from calling them a “wicked band” (Numbers 14:35).
So when the ancient rabbis were looking through the Torah for a proof text for the idea that a minyan of 10 people was the minimum number required for communal living and action, they had to choose. Would they base the idea of minyan on the 10 good people that Abraham posited might live in Sodom? Or would they base their understanding of the Jewish law of the minyan on the 10 wicked spies?
The ancient rabbis noticed that the word used for this wicked “band” was actually the Hebrew word eidah — “community.” And that made the choice easy. They based the halachah of the minyan on the 10 wicked spies of this week’s Torah reading.
One is not required to be perfect in order to be counted as part of a Jewish community. We include in our midst the good, the bad, the saintly, the wicked — and all of the large number of us in between. No ideology or political opinion, no theology or personal identity, no action or reaction excludes someone from being counted as part of the Jewish people. Only when we open our eyes to the diversity that is included in “us” can we move forward to create a holy way of life together.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected] .