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August 23, 2014 / 27 Av, 5774
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What I Leaned From Playing Poker

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As soon as Shabbos was over, I knocked on my neighbor’s door to inquire whether her husband had already recited Havdalah. No one was home. I tried another neighbor but there was no answer there either. So I made Havdalah myself, lit two candles, checked in with my mother-in-law (who waits for my Motzaei Shabbos call) and sped out the door. I was on my way to play Texas hold ‘em (kosher poker); it was advertised as a fundraiser for our shul.

Earlier that week, I brought the flyer advertising this event to my rabbi. “Is it okay to do this?” I asked. The flyer stated: “Gambling has been proven to be hazardous to your spiritual, mental and financial health.” He told me it wasn’t gambling. I think my rav wrote the warning on the flyer, but he nonetheless gave me the go-ahead to participate.

When I walked into my friend’s house, I saw about 10 women seated around a long oval table, with stacks of green, black, red and white chips on the table in front of each of them. Married, single, widowed (like me) or divorced, each of us has her own challenges. But that night, we were putting our problems aside. With a $100 donation to the shul, we were challenging each other in a game that most of us didn’t know how to play.

Two husbands were there to instruct us in Texas hold ‘em – and we needed them. One dealt each of us two cards and we bid chips based on the three-, then four- and finally the five-cards the dealer placed in the middle of the table. The cards in the middle benefited all of us and helped us make matches with our own two-cards. If we had two of a kind, we might win but only if no one had a higher two of a kind, or three of a kind, or a full house, or a straight or a flush.

I, like everyone else, could hardly believe I caught on so fast.

As we studied our cards, we ate salty, skinny popcorn, pickled tomatoes, and veggies in dips. We laughed at the thought that the men wouldn’t eat while playing poker.

Then a strange thing happened. Someone was winning and we were sure she would go to the finals. We cheered for her, but after a few hands someone else started winning. Another woman had sponsored her in memory of a friend, who we all thought would have signed up for this game. Again, we applauded. “I bet the men don’t clap for each other,” said one of the women, drawing a collective laugh. The same thing happened again and again, chips traveling from one person to the next. With each new win, everyone cheered.

Suddenly, I had the most chips. Someone mentioned that I got a berachah from the rabbi when I asked a shailah about coming that night. “You’ll have to ask another shailah as to whether you can be in the playoffs,” said the hostess, which caused another roar of laughter. In fact, I hadn’t laughed so much in a long time.

With stacks of $5,000, $1,000, $500 and $100 chips in front of me, my face felt flushed and my heart was beating fast. I could be the winner, I thought. Then gradually, game after game, I lost it all to someone who hadn’t won much the entire evening. She was the winner of a possible three-night stay in a kosher getaway. Beaming, she said, “I only came because they needed an extra.”

Whoever was still there at 1 a.m. was happy for her. But truth be told, we all wanted to win. And in a sense, we did. It was a night of camaraderie, laughter, and cheering each other on. One woman described it as “a different kind of evening.” And the woman who won the first round but then lost most of the others said, “It was worth the donation.” I agree, for it clarified something I was learning.

Each night since my beloved husband passed away six years ago, I read a few lines or a paragraph or two from A Letter for the Ages, Rabbi Avraham Chaim Feuer’s commentary on the Ramban’s Letter. My husband, z”l, and I had been studying this sefer during the last six months of his illness.

One section of the small book speaks about “The Frailty of Fortune.” There Rabbi Feuer quotes from David HaMelech’s Tehillim 75: “God is the Judge; He lowers one and raises another.”

On this night of kosher poker, I saw this so clearly. The chips moved from one person to the next. We all tried to make the best choices. Should I stay in or go out, check or bid higher? One minute I was on top of the world; almost the next minute, I lost it all.

“This world may be likened to a waterwheel which irrigates a field” (Midrash Shemos Rabbah 31:14), quotes Rabbi Feuer. “It scoops water from a stream below and lifts the water to the elevated field. Then it descends again – empty. Men’s fortunes rise and fall in a similar manner.”

I felt that wheel spinning after my husband passed away. One moment I had love and all the financial security I needed, and then, suddenly, I didn’t know how I was going to survive. But with Hashem’s help, I’m doing it. I work part-time selling ads for a Jewish newspaper, I tutor children regularly, and I write articles for Jewish publications. Because of high property taxes and maintenance, I put my house up for sale. In less than a week, someone bought it. And two months later, I was in my new apartment.

All this came about through the Hand of Hashem. He deals the cards and stays close by to help me make the right choices. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. But whether I’m up or down, Hashem never leaves me. In fact, He never leaves any of us. So we’re all winners.

Who would have thought that I could gain clarity from playing poker? Now that’s something to cheer about.

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