It was about three years ago. My little league team was playing for a spot in the championship game. In the top of the first, everything went wrong. A combination of hits and errors – one of them by me – led to a 5-0 deficit. In the dugout, our coach went bonkers. It would have easy for us to get down on ourselves. But I didn’t get too down on myself. There was plenty of time left. And sure enough, we climbed back into it and won the game in the bottom of the 6th. I got the game winning hit, a single over third base with the bases loaded.
Last summer, I was playing chess with my camp social worker, who happens to be an excellent chess player. Early in the game, he captured my queen. Now in chess, losing a queen is not the best thing that can happen. It’s a big blow. When it happens, your chances of winning are slim, especially against a tough opponent.
However, the only thing in chess worse than losing a queen is giving up entirely, which I didn’t do. It was a long, intense match, about an hour. In the end, I was able to control the board with my bishops kept trying as hard as I could and I was able to win.
I’m sure you are all wondering how does my Torah portion connect to chess board and baseball games. The portion contains another kind of athletic competition, a wrestling match, one that lasted all night long. One of the wrestlers was Jacob. Of that we’re sure (although by the end of the night he had a different name – Israel). No one really knows who Jacob’s opponent was.
Many people think Jacob was wrestling against Esau’s angel. Others say he was wrestling himself.
What does it mean to wrestle with yourself? I’ve faced some tough opponents over the years, but most often the true opponent I’m facing is myself. That’s what happened in that baseball game and chess match.
In Jacob’s case, he had a lot on his mind and some fateful decisions to make. He was about to meet his brother for the first time in 20 years, and the thing he had heard was that Esav wanted to kill him. All his life, Jacob had been running away, be it from his brother Esav after their father’s death, or from Lavan, his deceiving father in law. Here Jacob had a chance to run away yet again, but part of him wanted to stand strong. He had to overcome his own fears to do the right thing and make up with Esav.
In chess, I’ve developed some guidelines on how to keep my own emotions in check. (Get it?) It’s all about staying calm and keep face. It’s also about planning ahead, not underestimating your opponent and never be afraid to put your pawns to work. Jacob actually split his camp in two, moving all the pieces around, and being prepared for whatever Esav decided to do.
These guidelines also make sense in life. For part of my mitzvah project, I am teaching a student with challenges how to play the guitar. Though it’s not as obvious, there is a distinct opponent in any instrument that you play: yourself. Mastering an instrument take a lot of work, and it is very easy to quit. When I took piano, it was hard at first. But glad my mom encouraged me to keep playing. The fact that we had just bought a piano certainly helped J My student is doing really, really well.
And now that I have become Bar Mitzvah, I am reminded of the quote from Pirke Avot, the Wisdom of our Fathers,
איזה הוא גיבור--הכובש את יצרו
Who is a hero? He who defeats himself" (4:1).
Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvha Commentary: Richard Greenbaum on Vayishlach
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