THE JEWISH GAMBIT
There is an inordinate amount of Obviously disproportionate amount of Jews in the list of world chess champions.
Which isn’t surprising, considering that chess requires mental grit, patience and strategy. These skills were highly accentuated among the Jewish community, resulting from the ancient Jewish culture of mental acuity and rigorous Torah study from even a very young age, and constant persecutions and upheaval.
Chess is on many people’s minds today. Many communities have the tradition not to study Torah on the night of December 25. What then is a Jew supposed to do with their free time? play chess!
One of the world’s greatest chess players was a Jew named Sammy Reshevksy (1911-1992). Named Shmuel at birth, he was born in Poland to a Chassidic family.
As a young boy he was recognized as a chess prodigy. At age 9 he competed in a simultaneous chess exhibition in France. He played many games simultaneously against chess championship much older than him, and he won every game. Throughout his career he won many championships, and received the honorary title Grandmaster.
In 1920, his parents moved to the United States to make a living by publicly exhibiting their child’s talent. In the 1940’s, when Sammy married his wife Norma, he settled in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and developed a close relationship with Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Due to his strong Jewish upbringing, Reshevksy refused to play tournaments on Shabbat and Jewish festivals. Once, he asked the Rebbe for his blessing for success in an upcoming chess match. The Rebbe responded that he would grant his wish if he would resolve to study Torah every day. Reshevsky readily agreed, and indeed, the blessing was fulfilled.
One Shabbat in 1949, Reshevksy attended the prayers services at 770, the Lubavitcher Shul and headquarters in Brooklyn NY. After the prayers, the previous Rebbe’s son in law Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (who succeeded his father in law in 1951) led a farbrengen. Seeing that Reshevsky was in attendance, the Rebbe delivered a special teaching about the spiritual lessons from chess. Following is an adaptation of the lecture:
In chess, the king is the central piece on the board. All the other pieces work to protect the king, by attempting to eliminate the forces which try to oppose him.
Working for the king are high-level officers – rooks, bishops and knights – who have significant powers to move in various distances and directions.
Additionally, there are low-level foot soldiers – pawns – whose powers are minimal and can only move one step at a time.
Spiritually speaking, the king is G-d. G-d created the world so that awareness of His truth can become widespread even in this lowly world. The purpose of all created beings is to protect the king and advance His agenda. This is achieved by eliminating the forces which attempt to deny and defy the King, and to fill the world with the knowledge of G-d.
The officers are the angels. Angels have significant roles and powers. They inhabit the spiritual worlds and channel Divine energy to the worlds below and influence much of what happens down here.
The pawns are us humans. Seemingly, we play a less significant role than angels; we possess fewer abilities than them. Yet it is we who stand on the front lines. We may move slowly, our powers are limited, yet our simple actions have the power to protect the King and fulfill G-d’s desire.
Now here comes the twist: When a pawn reaches the end of the board, it has the ability to transform into a queen. The higher-level pieces do not share this ability.
In Kabbalah, angels are called ‘omdim’ (stationary), and humans are called ‘mehalchim’ (moving).
Angels are like spiritual robots. They are programmed with high-level functions, but can only behave as they are programmed. In a sense, they are rigid and severely limited. They don’t possess any discernment or powers of choice to behave as they wish, or to attain achievements that are outside of their programming.
Humans are a composite of the lowest and highest entities. Our bodies are physical, yet our souls are ‘pieces of G-d’. We have the ability to defy any programming – to stoop to the low levels of behaving like a beast, or to ascend to the highest levels of spiritual attainment. We possess the freedom of choice to determine our destiny.
As simple as the pawn seems, it is the only piece that can achieve true greatness. Through a series of good choices and proper strategy, the pawn can become a queen, one of the most powerful pieces on the board.
This may have been a message that Reshevsky needed to hear, but it is also a message that we all need to hear.
If ever you are feeling down, powerless, or a failure, realize that you are a pawn in the king’s army. It may seem like you are smaller than others, but know that your small actions have significant potency, and that you possess the ability reach higher. Within your limited capabilities, play the right game. Choose wisely and stay focused. If you do it right, you will discover the true potential that the King has blessed you with.