May 29, 2024
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May 29, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

I never learned how to play chess. Though it is called the Game of Kings, I’m not sure whether that’s because kings played it, or some of the players represent kings and other members of a royal court. It is a game of cerebral fitness, and the very best players are those who started very young and spent years honing their skills.

The highest title, aside from winning championships, is called a grandmaster. It is a title that once earned, does not leave its owner even if they stop playing chess. Unlike a championship ring or belt that can be taken when the champion is defeated, becoming a grandmaster is more about attaining a level of skill than just being better than other people. Indeed, it’s about you mastering the moves and critical thinking skills that will enable you to beat others, even if you don’t continue to play. (To be fair, to attain the rank of grandmaster, you do need to beat a number of other players at a certain level, including other grandmasters.)

However, what you’re really doing is learning to recognize patterns of play and be able to project moves before they’re played. The very best chess players can anticipate as many as 12 to 15 moves ahead (though legends say it can be as many as 30) and before they make a move, they imagine their opponents’ responses, as well as their own, for the next few moves. This is a skill that is not limited to chess, but has a real-world purpose, especially for Jews.

The Mishna says, “Aizehu Chacham? Haro’eh es hanolad. Who is wise? He who sees what will be.” A chacham isn’t just someone who understands what he sees. It is someone who understands that which cannot yet be seen. It’s someone who sees patterns in life and human responses much like a chess grandmaster, just with much higher stakes.

There is a famous story about the Chofetz Chaim, who was asked by another rav to accompany him on a fundraising mission. On their journey, they stopped at an inn where the hostess was very attentive to her illustrious guests. After they ate dinner, she asked them how everything had been. The Chofetz Chaim told her everything was wonderful.

The other rav agreed. “Yes, everything was quite delicious. The soup could have used a bit more salt, but besides that, it was great.” The hostess excused herself and the Chofetz Chaim turned to the other rav, enraged. “How could you say such lashon hara? I thought this was a mitzvah trip but, clearly, I was wrong!” The other rav was shocked and didn’t know what was happening.

“What lashon hara?” he asked. “I didn’t say anything about anyone. I just said the soup could use a little salt.”

“Do you think the hostess cooks all the food herself?” asked the Chofetz Chaim. “Undoubtedly, she has a cook. And if a woman is a cook for someone else, likely she has no husband. Maybe she has orphans to support. Now, because of your thoughtless comment, the hostess will probably berate her, and possibly fire her. You’ve thereby caused pain to a widow and taken away her livelihood!”

The other rav tried to calm the Chofetz Chaim. “I’m sure you’re overreacting. That’s a pretty far-fetched chain of events.” “Is it?” asked the Chofetz Chaim. “Let’s go see.”

They walked into the kitchen and saw the hostess yelling at the cook. “Please,” she whimpered. “I’m an almana, and I need to support my children.” It was just as the Chofetz Chaim had foreseen. The other rav apologized profusely to the hostess. “No, no! The food was delicious. It is I whose taste buds are somewhat dulled.”

I was reminded of this when I saw a fellow pull into a head-to-head parking spot at a store, right up to the shopping cart someone had left at the front edge of his space, and at the front edge of the opposing spot. Had he moved the wagon, someone else could have parked there, or else, when he left, he would have been able to pull straight forward. Now he would have to back out. When I pulled in next to him, I moved the cart and brought it to the store, out of people’s way.

Inside, I simply had to ask him why he hadn’t moved it. “I actually thought about it,” he said. “But when I got out, I wasn’t sure if the space between my car and the one next to me would be big enough, so I didn’t move it.” OK, he had thought ahead. But, I realized, only one step ahead.

I reflected on the fact that I pulled in after he’d left, and even if the space between his car and the one to his left was tight, he could have walked the wagon around to the right, which was empty, or to the other side of the car next to him, which had no one parked there either.

It made me think about the importance and value of thinking not one step ahead, not two, and not three. Rather, ideally, we should see patterns, causes and effects, and the long-range results of our decisions. We should envision what will happen because of our actions, and how others will be affected and possibly react.

We may never move a knight or rook, but we can become grandmasters of ourselves, when we see the future unfolding ahead of time, and take care to ensure the moves we make are winning ones.

By Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz

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