I recently encountered a story that got me rethinking how I want to lead prayer.
Once, a teacher took on the role of High School Learning Coach in the school where she taught for many years. The first thing she did in her new position was shadow two students for two days, sitting in every class with them, doing every assignment with them, and copying every note with them. By the end of the experiment, she was exhausted and disheartened.
This story came to me from The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros. The full account from the blog of educator Grant Wiggins is worth the read, but I want to focus on the point that floored Couros as well:
I asked my tenth-grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no.
Even though this story is about high school learning, it struck a nerve in me that has been pinched for a while: most prayer services are not structured in a way that enables participants to feel like their presence is valued. That’s a problem. How could I open my heart and sing out my soul if it doesn’t really matter if I’m there?
The concept of minyan offers one solution. (Minyan is the quorum of ten adults whose presence is customarily required for us to recite certain prayers.) Last Shabbat, I was leading a service in which, at the start, there were only nine of us. We wanted to do all the prayers and read Torah, and a few of us wanted to say the Mourner’s Kaddish aloud (which is something we don’t do without a minyan). One of us went in search of a tenth, and when our tenth arrived, we felt collective relief, joy, and gratitude.
The magic of a minyan is that when there are exactly ten, it’s evident just how much the presence of each individual matters. Each person is the tenth for the other nine, each person gives the other nine the gift of a full set of prayers.
Ostensibly, a typical worship experience is not supposed to be about any given individual (well, maybe, The One Individual); it’s supposed to be about the whole, the greater minyan. The presence of each person is necessary because it enables and elevates the prayer of the person next to them, at least in theory. But most of the time, especially in cases when far more than ten people are gathered, whether a given person is there or not hardly makes an impact.
What would it look like if in a prayer service (and in communal life more broadly) every single person felt their presence was valuable, that others will miss out on their contributions when they are absent? Maybe not missed by all, but missed by some. Missed by enough. By enough overlapping and interlocking “somes” that the presence or absence of one affects the experience of all.
I don’t yet know what this looks like in practice, but I want it to be one of my foundational goals for leading prayer. Every member of the minyan needs a personal way to contribute to the overall experience. Every voice needs a chance to be heard—not just as part of a communal chorus (though that should be treasured), but as a gift to those people immediately around it, those people whose experience would be different were the voice not there.
A meditation I wrote to open a prayer service in April 2016, which I return to now:
Here we are, before You, together.
Individuals uniting for a moment,
life-stories intertwining for a brief time.
Let us be open to the awe of this event.
Give us humility to recognize what we need,
what we cannot do alone.
Give us compassion to grasp the needs of others.
Make us strong enough to be vulnerable,
trusting enough to help one another feel safe.
May we be thankful for the sacred gifts of voice,
presence, and spirit we receive from one another.
Let us honor our own unique, holy contributions.
Now, when we dwell in Your house,
may we celebrate our coming together,
for You and for one another, with joy.
.אַשְׁרֵי יוֹשְׁבֵי בֵיתֶךָ, עוֹד יְהַלְלוּךָ סֶּלָה
Ashrei yoshvei veitecha, od y'hal'lucha selah.
Happy are those who dwell in Your house.
May they ever praise You. Selah.