Poker and Torah: A Match Made in Heaven
Parshat Sh’lach June 7th, 2010
Final Shabbat at Adat Ari El
Shabbat Shalom! I imagine this won’t really be my last time speaking from this bimah but it is my last as your Assistant Rabbi so I want to say goodbye as simply as possible. Thank you – each of you for listening to me with an openness of heart and spirit I am not sure exists in many congregations in this world, with a joy and love of Torah that made me feel at home here and most of all for allowing yourselves to be challenged by a young rookie rabbi just getting her start. I was honored to serve you, speak to you, teach you, minister to you but most of all to learn from you – it was a gift – thank you, now on to my final gift for now – a word of Torah.
I want you to imagine the following scene: when I was a young teenager, must have been around 13 my brother Ari and I organized a weekly poker game. We would meet up with our friends about an hour after Shabbat ended on Saturday nights – there was a rotation of about 10 of us, depending on who was free on a particular evening. I want you to really picture this, some 10 nerdy Orthodox Day School kids (mostly guys, I think I might have been the only girl) playing poker. And here is the kicker, we met in my grandmother’s basement – my Baba’s house – no joke; in an older ladies basement. What can I say she had a great table for it, awesome snacks (who wouldn’t want strudel during poker) and she left us pretty much to our own devices. This game happened pretty regularly for several years. As funny as it might seem I learned a lot of lessons during these games, beyond the one about me having a great poker face and learning how to take most of my friends’ money. [PAUSE] Torah and poker actually have a lot in common – both require intense study and practice, both demand not only intellectual savvy but insight into the human psyche and both have very high stakes.
There is one similarity, between the lessons of poker and the messages of Torah, boy I never thought I would say that from the pulpit, the message offered by both poker and Torah, is the lesson of “all in”. In Poker, if you don’t know the game, all in means when the final round of betting comes to you and you are certain you can take the game – whether it is because you have a great hand or more impressive you are a great player with a typical hand you bet your lot on yourself, you believe in your ability to win the game no matter the stakes and so you bet all of your chips and if you do it well you run the table, win all the money.
In this morning’s Torah reading the Jewish people are at a precipice moment; waiting to enter the land of Israel, ears perked hoping to catch a sense of their new home from the returning spies who have scouted the land, the Israelite advance team of sorts. Imagine for a moment what it must have felt like. The air must have been thick with anticipation, the people gathered, the spies exhausted from a journey into the land and the moment comes as they, the spies return to the camp. The community waits and wonders what is it like? Can we go there? Will there be a freedom for us there? The spies watching their people – so frightened, anxious and uncertain; how do they respond? What can they say?
The spies’ response to the people according to the Torah, “The country we have travelled and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size…we look to ourselves like grasshoppers. And so must we have looked to them.”
The problem in this response, and yes, of course there is a problem was not the spies’ description of the land or the people of the land that in fact was likely a factual truth. However, their last statement – “we look to ourselves like grasshoppers and so must we have looked to them,” according to the rabbis was their downfall, their mistake and why God is so angry with them in the Torah. The midrash, the rabbinic imagination creates a narrative to explain the difficulty with this statement. The rabbis describe a God distressed at the spies, dumbfounded by their lack of faith, confidence, boldness or hope. In the rabbi’s imagined conversation God says “I can forgive them for thinking they look to themselves like grasshoppers but I cannot forgive them for assuming that’s how they appear to others. How did they know, says God, according to the rabbinic rendering perhaps they look to them like angels?
The midrashic understanding of the spies’ weakness, their failing if you will is a reflection of a certain theological perspective – a view which has God caring about the process of human development. A God who along with us is motivated to be moving towards faith, towards a life view, a world view which is essentially being willing to put all of ourselves, the deepest parts of our soul, heart and mind into every endeavor, every task, every mitzvah every day we are blessed to live in. You see in a Poker game, the really, really great players know how to be all in and win no matter what their hand is. If you have never played poker you will just have to trust me. The cards you are dealt don’t as much matter as whether you play them well. And this is a truly Jewish message and the lesson the spies did not learn.
Inevitably as a simple fact of being alive we are all dealt some hardships and sadness, some triumphs and joys– some more tragic than others but all of us struggle, suffer and some are blessed with more joys but all of us celebrate. Like the spies we all sometimes face a challenge which is seemingly overwhelming insurmountable and beyond our grasp. At times the challenges are overbearing - how to manage a tight financial month or a too busy calendar or a child who simply will not listen. Then, there are those challenges which are even more devastating an illness in a young person, the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one or a crisis in our marriages’. On the flip side there are the triumphs – promotions at work, a special needs’ child standing on this very bimah becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or an wedding anniversary at 10, 20, 30 years.
However, the demand Judaism asks of us is if no matter the hand we are dealt can we put it, the traditions, the mitzvot, the ethics at the core of our very existence in triumph and in tragedy, woven into every decision we face helping us to be people who live with that all in attitude. The Torah says to us when life comes at you in great times and in the most difficult can you be all in, can you never allow yourself to think you are seen by others as a grasshopper always know you can be seen, you have the capacity to be viewed by others and by yourself as an angel. Judaism both asks us to be all in and gives us the resources to live a life that is exactly that – a life that bets all in.
The spies failed at this challenge they allowed themselves to believe they were small, unable to use their community, their tradition and their God to overcome the people in the land, to find a way to risk their very life on Judaism and God. So I ask you today CAN YOUR JUDAISM give you the strength, the courage and the wisdom to be all in – to face every question in life, every dilemma, every triumph and put your whole self into your Judaism so it gives back to you as much as you give to it.
The inevitable question is how? How do we play in the Jewish version of Poker, this game of life with the all in attitude? For Judaism being all in means seeing ourselves like angels in each part of our lives, in our relationship to God, our relationship to others and in our commitment to mitzvot. Judaism asks us to believe what we do, how we are seen by others and how we see ourselves when faced with daily life and life’s greatest challenges makes a difference. When you are all in it means you are brave enough to live your life seeing yourself as an angel and not a grasshopper. We do this in Judaism in three ways – in our relationship to caring for others in the world, ensuring our universe is a better, more equitable and holy place. In our relationship to mitzvot – by committing ourselves to observing a tradition handed down to us from previous generations with the gifts of Shabbat, Kashrut (I know it doesn’t always feel like a gift) etc. Finally in our faith in God, connecting to holiness through a deep and abiding faith in a God of goodness, of hope, strength and compassion.
You see it wasn’t the spies fear or trepidation which was their downfall for who wouldn’t have felt frightened and anxious – it wasn’t even their doubt about whether the Israelites were strong enough to overcome the inhabitants of the land. It was the spies’ inability to believe in themselves enough, to see their own greatness, to know their own ability to be in a high stakes game in life and bet on themselves, to bet all in because they lacked commitment and faith to themselves and to what their community and tradition could have given them. Judaism asks us to do just the opposite. Let us know the stakes are high, let us believe we are angels from the perspective of others and let us be willing to risk it all for the sake of Torah, for the sake of God’s goodness and for the sake of our souls – be all in, always. You are a Jew and that is what Judaism expects of you and offers you – the rituals, resources, faith, coping skills to be all in. Live your life this way and you will be a richer Jew and a richer human being for it. Shabbat Shalom.