There is a secret hidden in Resh Lakhish’s statement. He calls those who abstain from the synagogue “bad neighbors” because there is no stronger term he can use. No mitzvah commands one to attend services. The sages define an obligation to pray, but that is fulfilled as easily in private as it is in public. The value of gathering together for public prayer does not come from a command but from the intrinsic value of the experience of gathering together.
There is a dramatic mishnah teaching later in this work that notes the changes that occur in the blessing after the meal (Birkat HaMazon) when the gathering grows from 3 to 10 to 100 to 1,000 to 10,000 (could the sages ever have seen 10,00 gathered for a meal?). Mishnah Berachot 7:3 implies that more people gathered together may exercise more power, though Rabbi Akiba demurs.
As other posts have suggested, there are a lot of reasons for choosing public prayer. After Abba Benjamin asserts that one’s prayer is heard [by God] only in the Synagogue, a long passage asks how we know that God is present when groups of different sizes gather. This countdown reveals some of the dynamics of public prayer.
Rabin b. R. Adda says in the name of R. Isaac: How do you know that the Holy One, blessed be God, is to be found in the synagogue? For it is said: God stands in the congregation of God (Psalm 82:1).
How do you know that if ten people pray together the Divine presence is with them? For it is said: God stands in the congregation of God.
How do you know that if three are sitting as a court of judges the Divine Presence is with them? For it is said: In the midst of the judges [God] judges (Psalm 82:1).
How do you know that if two are sitting and studying the Torah together the Divine Presence is with them? For it is said: Then they that feared the Lord spoke one with another and the Lord hearkened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him, for them that feared the Lord and that thought upon His name (Malachi 3:16)...
How do you know that even if one man sits and studies the Torah the Divine Presence is with him? For it is said: In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come unto thee and bless you (Exodus 20:21).
We begin with place. God meets us in the synagogue, according to one opinion, because the Psalmist (82:1) asserts that God stands in the congregation of God. Stressing the place where God stands, this suggests that certain places possess a unique capacity to evoke prayer. Many people would agree, though they may suggest places other than the synagogue: alongside the water, staring at the sunset or sunrise, atop a mountain or deep in the woods. Even Reb Nachman of Bratzlav counseled that one should designate a favorite place for prayer and meet God there regularly.
A second opinion draws on the same verse of Psalms but emphasizes those with whom God stands. The congregation of God, defined as 10 Jewish adults, accentuates the power of a group. A palpable change occurs when enough people gather together. You feel a change in the room as it transforms from a collection of individuals into a community. On different occasions the exact number may differ, though 10 works as a generic marking point. The communal voice blends the individual voices and carries them farther. Prayer carried by the power of 10 produces a greater impact on the individuals who gather together and, according to the sages, on God as well.
Under 10 the passage shifts from prayer to study, but in the world of the sages both are vehicles for communing with God, so I feel justified in staying with our theme. Two who study together, we are told, are inscribed in a book of remembrance. Consider the word inscribed. The best study, like the best prayer, changes you. You take in something of the other, and leave part of yourself with them. When you engage in that deep study or prayer, even if there are only 2 of you present, a change is inscribed within you, a reciprocal action that takes place between you and your partner, between you and God.
The sages draw on a verse in Exodus to assert that even a single person who invokes God’s Name sits with the Divine Presence. In contrast to the initial assertion that prayer requires a certain place and a certain number, here the sages insist that God is present even to one sitting alone. Prayer, after all, is not really the words of a book or the songs of the cantor or the words of a sermon or the public recitation. It is, rather, avodat ha-lev (the service of the heart), that which resides within the individual.
Prayer is complicated. Read this passage carefully and you will discover that it is self-contradictory. Place is important, but I have been in rooms that are so distracting I can never calm myself enough to pray in them. Yes, there is power in a minyan, but I have attended full synagogues in which no one seems to express an ounce of spirit. Numbers alone will not make an impression. And I know that if I cannot direct my own heart to pray, nothing outside matters. Prayer is all of the above and none of them.
A final story, told to me by Rabbi Scheinerman, points to the relationship between individuals and the community at the hour of prayer.
In a mountain village in Europe many centuries ago, there was a nobleman who wondered what legacy he might be able to leave for his townspeople. At last he decided to build a synagogue. No one saw the plans for the building until it was finished. When the people came for the first time they marveled at its beauty and completeness.
Then someone asked, "Where are the lamps? How will it be lighted?"
The nobleman pointed to brackets which were all through the synagogue on the walls. Then he gave each family a lamp which they were to bring with them each time they came to the synagogue. "Each time you are not here," he said, "that part of the synagogue will be unlit. This is to remind you that whenever you fail to come here, especially when the community needs you, some part of God's house will be dark."
May you bring the light of your heart to the synagogue whenever you gather for prayer.
(c) 2009 by Rabbi Louis Rieser