I recently heard Rabbi Yitzchak Fanger speak about emunah, our faith and belief in Hashem. He said that the fact that Hashem is running the world – from the largest events, such as Creation, to the smallest details, including those which are part of our lives, should be not only information or beliefs in our minds, but should impact our daily lives, including our decisions and behaviors.
In this context, he told an amazing story about Rabbi Noach Weinberg, zt”l, who, in the 1970s, founded in the Old City of Yerushalayim a yeshiva for secular English-speaking Jewish youth, which he called Aish HaTorah, the Fire of Torah.
One day Rabbi Weinberg went from the yeshiva down to the Kotel to daven, and also to see if he could find a young Jew there, maybe a tourist or student, who he could connect to in his engaging way, and convince to come to Aish which was just up the long stairs from the Kotel. And indeed, the Rabbi saw and approached an American boy of college age, who we’ll call Jon, who looked Jewish though not religious, and started to talk to him. Rabbi Weinberg saw and heard that Jon was a fine, intelligent, well-mannered young man who happened to be a chess champion.
They had a very pleasant and interesting conversation which led up to Rabbi Weinberg’s inviting Jon to have lunch at Aish, on the house, and also to a Torah class to learn something about his roots. Jon had spare time and was intrigued enough to agree. And so they went together to Aish where he enjoyed a good lunch, and also met other young men from various backgrounds, many of them quite interesting. And then Rabbi Weinberg brought Jon to a Torah class where he heard ideas, facts and concepts which he had never heard or even thought of before, and being intelligent and Jewish, he realized that he could not ignore the new world that was being opened to him.
And so, with Rabbi Weinberg’s encouragement, reinforced by the exciting energy of the other students, most of whom were or had been as uninformed as Jon and were now immersed in and excited about Torah learning, Jon went to a second Torah class and then another. And when he was offered the opportunity to stay there for a while, to eat and sleep there, and learn more about who he was and his amazing heritage, which he hadn’t known about until now, he took up the offer and decided to move in and continue to learn Torah there.
And it was great all around. In addition to savoring the surprising and enlightening inspiration he was getting from the classes, he also formed a warm relationship with Rabbi Weinberg, the Rosh Yeshiva who gave many of the classes, and was obviously very impressed with Jon. And so it was that Jon slowly grew in his connection to Yiddishkeit as he spent most of his days and nights at Aish which for the time being, had become his new home.
And then one day, after about three weeks, Jon approached Rabbi Weinberg and said: “I came to say goodbye, I’m going back to the good old U.S.” Rabbi Weinberg was taken aback. He knew that Jon was doing very well in his learning and understanding and was going forward in a very positive way. Rabbi Weinberg expected Jon to continue at Aish and gradually, as many, many students before him, he, too, would become observant, continue learning Torah and go on to live a complete Torah lifestyle as so many young men similar to him had already done.
And now Jon said he was leaving Israel and going back to the States? “Why? What happened? Is there a problem?” “No problem, Rabbi, Aish is great! But I have a chess tournament coming up and I have to go back to compete. And then if I’m there already, I’ll stay there. I’ve been looking forward to this tournament all year and it’s very important to me. And there will be more after this one, so I wanted to say goodbye and thanks for everything. It was really special being here. I really liked it.”
Rabbi Weinberg didn’t know what to say. Jon was a very fine, smart boy with great potential. If he would stay on, he would grow tremendously in Torah and would most probably choose a religious way of life. On the other hand, if at this stage when he was just beginning, if now he would leave and go back to his secular family, friends and environment, it wasn’t likely that he would continue to learn or even observe Torah. He would just become another disconnected Jew who knew a little but, without any support system, wasn’t committed enough to become and stay observant.
Not knowing what to do in this sudden, unexpected situation, Rabbi Weinberg silently asked Hashem to help him, saying that he had no personal interest in convincing Jon to stay. He only wanted to bring another Jew close to Hashem and His Torah. And so, in his heart and mind, the rabbi implored Hashem to help him convince Jon to stay at Aish.
After some moments of silence, Rabbi Weinberg said to Jon: “You know I want you to stay. You’re progressing so well here, at Aish, it would be a shame to leave.” To which Jon replied: “I know Rabbi, but as I said, this tournament is very important to me, so I have to go. Thanks for everything. It was great being here.”
And then, after not more than a moment, Rabbi Weinberg said: “I’ll make you a deal. You and I will play a game of chess. If you win, I’ll pay all your expenses for your flight back to America. And if I win, you’ll stay at Aish and continue learning for a few years.”
Of course Jon was totally surprised by what the rabbi suggested and he said, “You know how to play chess?” And the rabbi answered, “Not like you, but basically I know the moves. And I’m willing to make this deal with you. Do you agree to it?” Jon thought for a moment and then, with complete confidence, said, “Sure. If you’re willing to pay my flight back, why not?” To which Rabbi Weinberg responded. “But if I win, you stay at Aish and continue learning here for a few years.” Jon smiled and said, “Sure, rabbi, no problem,” never dreaming that that would be an actuality.
And so it was that they sat down to a game of chess. Of course, it wasn’t just a game. Rabbi Weinberg moved, and the champion moved. And the Rabbi moved, and the champion moved. And so they continued until . . . Rabbi Weinberg won the game. And Jon, shocked and perplexed as can be, stayed on at Aish, learning Torah and gradually becoming more and more committed to a fully observant Torah life. Today Jon is Yonatan and has a beautiful religious family.
At one point Yonatan came to Rabbi Weinberg and said: “Rabbi I’m a chess champion and you said yourself, that you just knew the basics. So for me, it was logical to agree to your deal. I was sure that I would win and get a free trip to America. But what made you agree? What made you think that you could possibly win against a polished champion? What made you offer to pay for my flight when there was seemingly no way you would win?”
Rabbi Weinberg smiled and responded: “You’re right. I’m not at all an expert at chess and it was totally illogical for me to think that I could win. But I knew what a fine boy you were and I wanted so much to help you come closer to Hashem and live your life according to our holy Torah. So when you said you were leaving, I silently prayed to Hashem: ‘Creator of the Universe, You know that I have no personal interest in Jon’s staying here. All I want is for him to connect to You and your Torah more and more. If he returns to the States, it’s not likely that that will happen. So please, Hashem, enable me to know how to keep him here in Eretz Yisrael, to learn Torah and grow stronger in observance.'” And then, continued Rabbi Weinberg to Yonatan, “That’s when I got the idea to offer you that deal. And since I couldn’t possibly win the game with my very limited chess skills, I asked Hashem to move my fingers, to make me make the right moves. And He did. And that’s how ‘I’ won.”
And then Rabbi Fanger, who told this amazing story to a very large audience of people from many different backgrounds, said, “Whenever we have doubts about our ability to succeed in any aspect of our lives, we must remember to have emunah, faith, that Hashem will help us. And not only to think about emunah, but to actually live with emunah, as Rabbi Weinberg did. And then, when we turn to Hashem for His help with pure faith in His loving, caring ability and desire to help us, and we do it with a pure heart, then, regardless of all other factors, such as skills, background, or anything else, we can expect to receive Hashem’s help in very real ways, Divine assistance will enable us to succeed.