| Second Thoughts |

A Solitary Note

Davening by one’s self has the power to teach us a thing or two


Among the most trying aspects of quarantine is davening without a minyan. A minyan carries one along on its waves, and if one falters in his kavanah, very often the sight of someone davening intensely helps bring one back into the stream. The minyan itself is an entity that possesses its own power and carries its component parts along.

But when one is alone — literally on one’s own — this requires greater concentration, deeper kavanah. As a result, one discovers elements in the davening that seem to jump out at him, phrases that he might ordinarily have overlooked were he not buoyed up by the currents of the minyan.

For example, right at the preliminary section of Shacharis there appears a flashing red light, causing us to pause and to consider. These are words that are always relevant, but in the midst of a pandemic that confounds the best scientific minds, they are most piercing: “Mah anachnu, meh chayeinu — what are we, what is our life… our strength, our might… like nothing before You… the wise are devoid of wisdom, the perceptive devoid of intelligence….” Our walking on the moon and all our technological brilliance are as nothing against a tiny virus that threatens all of civilization.

In the face of such an invisible reality, a little humility is quite in order. Illusions of man’s mastery of the physical world are once again shattered. In the face of the self-confidence of science — one could say arrogance — stand the many unsolved mysteries of the universe, and the obvious truth that science has limitless limitations.

The davening continues. Hard on the heels of this sobering section comes a Talmud citation from Shabbos (127a), in which are listed a number of crucial mitzvos: honoring parents, attending a funeral, providing for a bride, concentrating during prayer, bringing peace between people, and the study of Torah. Ironic, that with quarantine, one is not able — with the exception of good prayer and personal Torah study — fully to perform any of these precepts. Thus is underscored the discontent and joylessness of quarantine: not only the loss of human contact, but also the loss of the ability to do certain major mitzvos and to connect spiritually with others.

To be deprived of such mitzvos — not to be able to attend a funeral or a wedding or to honor or visit parents — is punishment for the soul, and deeply anguishing. Why are we being cut off from these mitzvos? Is this a measure-for-measure retribution, in that perhaps, when we did have the opportunity, we did not perform them with a full heart? Who knows?

The terrifying first chapter of Yeshayahu comes to mind. G-d says: “Mi bikeish zos miyedchem remos chatzeirai — Who asks of you to trample on my courtyards?” Your offerings and petitions and prayers are an abomination before Me, says G-d. You did not respect My holy places, did not take seriously your worship, your Torah study — therefore will you be deprived of them.

But I digress. Returning to the davening, we come to the most famous and fundamental declaration in Judaism. Shema Yisrael… Hashem echad. Echad does not merely mean “one.” It means singular, apart, separate, unique — all appropriate in describing the awe and majesty of the Creator. What it means in essence is that G-d, by His very nature, is solitary and alone. Good prayer occurs when we can most identify with G-d. Thus, classical Jewish prayer, while encouraging prayer in a community with a minyan, attempts also to give us a sense of aloneness within that minyan. Thus, there is separation of the genders. Thus, many men wrap themselves in a tallis, even covering the head. Thus, there is no conversing with others. We are among others, but we are alone. Every member of the minyan is alone, the lonely individual addressing the Only One.

During lockdown davening, we can feel especially lonely without the spiritual support of others around us. But as we utter the Shema, we suddenly realize that we are not the only ones who are alone. We understand that we are the lonely ones addressing the Only One. We feel solitary, but not lonely.

And thus we end the davening on an upbeat note with the climactic section of the Amidah: “Sim Shalom — May G-d grant peace, goodness, and blessing, life, and mercy upon us and upon all Israel….”

Davening without a minyan means no amein, no Kaddish, no Kedushah, no Torah reading. But if one is attentive, davening by one’s self has the power to teach us a thing or two. We might be alone, but we are neither lonely nor forsaken.

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