A group of more than 20 of my family members recently got together in Las Vegas to celebrate the 60th birthday of my dear aunt. While there, I found myself in the poker room at a hotel on the Strip. As I sat, I noticed I completed the “minyan” of 10 adult poker players at our table.
In poker, each player holds concealed cards. They are cards that no one can know but the player himself. As the game proceeds, players learn about the potential value of others’ hidden cards based on the actions they take at the table. Often, the winner of the pot would never need to show his cards. Based on his actions and behavior, all the players would conclude that his hand was the best, folding theirs without ever having seen his. It fascinates me that the winner is not always the player with the best cards; often, it is the one who plays his hand as if he is holding aces.
It was almost the month of Elul, and I couldn’t help but draw parallels to this season and the process of teshuva (repentance). Every year, we as individuals deal with a host of unique challenges. We may not have been dealt the best cards: We struggle with illness, depression, divorce, loss, financial woes, unfair treatment, and I could go on.
The challenge of Elul is to hold our cards tight and to continue to play the hand as best we can. Each Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity to match our values with our behaviors, to have difficult conversations in hopes of repairing relationships, and to reach for heightened spirituality and connectedness. As long as we are in the game, we have the opportunity to decide how we are going to make our next turn count.
At the poker table, a player has three options: to fold and give up the hand, to call and scarcely remain a part of the game, or to raise and hope for a fruitful outcome. An experienced player will tell you that to raise takes guts but can pay off big. Don’t fold. Acknowledge that no matter how bad things may seem, G-d is protecting us, so long as we keep playing.
During this season of repentance, we recite Psalm 27 daily. We say, “Though an army shall encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war should rise up against me, I shall remain confident … For He conceals me in His sukkah on a rotten day.”
It is curious that the safe place where we feel most protected by G-d is in His sukkah. One might think we would feel safe in His sanctuary or in a fortified tower. After all, the sukkah is not built to withstand stormy weather. Yet, when we sit in the sukkah, we acknowledge that we don’t hold all of the cards. We build the tent as best we can and then trust that G-d will intervene to shelter us from physical and spiritual harm. Indeed, the safest place to reside is inside Hashem’s sukkah. If we can achieve that kind of trust in G-d and the courageous motivation to do everything we can to improve our situations, we will enjoy the confidence and blessings of winners.
Sometimes we stumble and flop on our faces. Sometimes things take a turn for the worse. Sometimes we feel like we are up a certain river without a paddle.
We can prepare ourselves for the showdown on Rosh Hashanah and make next year better than the past if we play the hand as if we are holding aces. Don’t fold. Raise. L’eila U’leila — higher and higher.
By Rabbi Steven Suson
Rabbi Steven Suson serves as rabbi at Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim Congregation in Wheaton, Maryland, and volunteer chaplain for the Montgomery County Police Department.