Suddenly, I felt myself awakened during a flight by a rather startling question. Someone wanted to see my tzitzit (ritual fringes). Still half asleep, I partially unbuttoned my shirt, showing the aggressive inquisitor the tzitzit. I thought that perhaps he needed to borrow them. “Good,” he said, “come join us for the Shacharit (morning) minyan.”
Somewhat confused, I asked him what my wearing or not wearing tzitzit had to do with my joining the minyan.
“You know,” he said, “you can’t pray with just any Jew.”
This act of zealotry, as Rabbi Riskin describes it, stands in contrast to the source for the requirement of ten men for a minyan which was God’s statement to Moses, “How long must I suffer this evil congregation…?” . And the evil congregation to which God is referring is the ten out of twelve scouts who did not want to conquer the Land of Israel.
Since the word “edah” (congregation) refers to ten scouts, we know that ten comprise a minyan. Now these ten scouts are considered to have committed one of the most grievous sins in the Torah in their refusal to leave the desert and inhabit the Land of Israel. If such individuals are the very source for a congregational quorum, how could someone be excluded simply if he doesn’t wear tzitzit?
We find a parallel idea in our parsha which describes the sweet-smelling spices of the incense burned on a special altar, whose inspiring fragrance permeated the House of God.
The Torah lists the different spices yet one spice stood out- the helbena – which as Rashi writes, helbena “…is a malodorous spice which is known (to us as) gelbanah (galbanum).
Scripture enumerates it among the spices of the incense to teach us that we should not look upon the inclusion of Jewish transgressors in our fasts and prayers as something insignificant in our eyes; indeed, they must also be included amongst us” .
What a lesson: The community of Israel – Hebrew: tzibur – must consist of all types of Jews: righteous (the letter tzadi, for “tzaddikim”), intermediate (the letter bet for “beinonim”), and wicked (the letter reish for “resha’im” which together spells tzibur), just as the incense of the Sanctuary included spices of diverse fragrances.
Perhaps because we must learn to take responsibility for every member of the “family” no matter what their behavior; perhaps because what appears to us as wicked may in reality be more genuine spirituality; perhaps because no evil is without its redeeming feature or perhaps merely in order to remind us not to be judgmental towards other human beings, the message of the incense could not be clearer.
Rabbi Riskin ends the above story by revealing that when it came time to pray, I chose to do so not with the self-selecting group of the righteous, but rather with those who had been rejected by the tzitzit-checking minyan gatherer, confident that they would be far more acceptable to the God of compassion and unconditional love to whom we pray!