27 Sivan 5780 l June 19, 2020
Maharat Miriam Gonczarska
Class of 2015
Our Sages derive the number of members required for a Minyan (a Quorum) from the ten Meraglim (spies) who slandered the Land of Israel, as described in Parshat Shelach. (See Babylonian Talmud, Megilla 23b.)
This seems like a strange source to derive this requirement. Why should an assembly of ten men who had no faith in God be the model for our assemblies in prayer to sanctify the Name of God?
Yet, is it possible that despite making a disastrous mistake, there was something worthwhile in the experience of the Meraglim, which can be helpful in constructing a community of faith?
In Numbers 13:22, we have the Torah’s description of the potential challenges in the land of Israel: the Meraglim traveled to Hebron:
Let us see the description that the spies gave and where the conversation went:
Notice how they included more nations.
Now Caleb challenges them:
This throws the spies into defense mode:
Then they start to exaggerate:
They have now started to create their own version of reality.
So how did we go from “giants”, to “the land that devours its settlers”?
Many commentators have excellent explanations for what the spies saw, and that they had some objective evidence for their descriptions. Yet, what if it was true, but only subjectively?
Perhaps this came about as a result of their own shared stress of being spies, experiencing together potentially dangerous encounters with the giants. This possibility might be helpful in understanding the relationship between the Meraglim and formation of a Minyan.
Fear is a fascinating emotion. In our brain, the fear response is produced in the amygdala, a part of the brain in the shape of an almond, situated just behind each of our eyes. This small area produces, among others, stress hormones.
When a person sees an object, photons bounce off it and enter our eyes. This initiates a complex chemical and electrical reaction on our eye’s retina, which then sends a signal to our brain. In a normal situation, this signal travels a long path in the brain until it is processed by the cortex, the cognitive layer of the brain. However, when a fearful situation is detected, this signal goes directly to the brain’s limbic system, whose job is to react to life-threatening situations and to facilitate “fight or flight” responses. The brain stores this data in an easily accessible location for future reference.
With time and with every retelling of the scary event, some details can fall away, and others can get exaggerated. We say that neurons which fire together wire together – the more we do something, the more pathways in the brain we develop, the easier it becomes. There is also a social analog of this mechanism. Total strangers often become best friends as result of a traumatic event experienced together. There is also a separate but related phenomenon called groupthink - people in groups are more likely to accept irrational statements as truth.
Many of us have experienced such a story telling time, where we sat peacefully and safely around a fireplace, telling each other scary stories. The imagined monsters and dragons becoming bigger and scarier - first in the minds of the listeners, then even in the mind of the storyteller. We see how others react to what we are sharing, and it affects our perspective.
In such a case, would it not be better for people to live in solitude? That way we would not be able to “influence” each other with inaccurate thinking patterns and memories. Yet, it is not the conclusion that our tradition makes, and for a good reason.
An individual mind cannot function without community. We use language to create meaningful exchanges. Individual conscious self-awareness can only evolve and be maintained in interactions with others. Isolation from others is an alienation from the social parts of ourselves. The proclamation of the holiness of God, as objective reality, can happen only in communal settings. The Torah teaches:
God collects the prayers reverberating in each of our separate minds and unites us, allowing for God's presence (the Shechinah) to descend. Collective fear, devotion, or love of God can be a source of the "social glue" not only on interpersonal, but also on the biological neuronal levels. The shared narratives cement the relationship. This same mechanism – community itself, which can make giants even bigger – can make the Name of God greater. Answering parts of the prayer, even by saying Amen, is like the conversation between Meraglim. It allows our feelings to elevate us, Kedusha - the sanctity - increases with each exchange.
Consciousness is one light reflecting in a multitude of mirrors. The starting point, the level of holiness, is almost irrelevant – since each human being, each unit of consciousness (each mind) comes from God, and on some level any ten Jews is enough. One does not have to be perfect to be part of a Quorum. To participate in this transformational process, only a minimal level of right intent is required. Therefore, we learn the source of the Minyan from the Meraglim.
As many of us now re-enter our places of worship, we should try to unite in the recollection of our own holiness. This can help us to truly worship God and release our full spiritual potential. Let us try to do it in a way that we can see and hear marginalized voices in our communities. Let us now connect - not through fear, but through love for each other and God.