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Holiness at the Poker Table

Three years ago I was asked to deliver the d'var Torah for a "Men's Service" at the Union's Houston Biennial-a service that would focus specifically on men's spiritual issues. While I was honored to be asked, frankly I was stumped. I pride myself on avoiding stereotypes, and it had never occurred to me that men's spiritual issues were somehow unique. How could I say something that would be particularly meaningful to a room full of men?

So I went up to the men who were building the congregational sukkah. "The Torah portion for the Biennial is the Akedah," I told them. "What does it mean to you?" These guys knew about 2x4's and hammers. They were convinced that Torah was another world-one they'd never understand and never talk about. Undaunted, I kept asking them questions. "I wonder how Isaac felt when he realized that his father was about to plunge the knife into him," I said. "That's our story," one of them told me. "That's what your d'var Torah needs to be about."

For those men, I realized, life was all about being competent. They are businessmen and professionals. They had struggled to find leadership roles in the congregation. They were proud of their work putting up the sukkah and maintaining the building. But two of the men were going through painful divorces, and a third had a child who was gravely ill. They felt powerless. Their sense of competency was gone. They felt dependent on others, dependent on God, dependent on the other men for support.

Here was a group of men who had never imagined themselves studying Torah. And yet they suddenly realized that the Torah was their story; that they had more in common with Isaac than they had ever imagined. That's what men's spirituality is all about.

The guys in our Men's Club think I'm different from them-that I care about God, and they just want to play poker with other guys. But when I take the time to listen, they tell me a different story. "These aren't just poker games," one man tells me. "We go there and support each other. We help keep each other's marriages together. When I was going through a tough period, the guys at the poker game saved my life." They come together atshiva minyanim and help each other through divorces. There is nothing in our congregation that's more holy. But they think that their lives are chol, ordinary-the opposite of holy. They don't give themselves credit for the holy things they do.

There are many names for God, such as Adonai and the Holy One. But Community and Connection are also names for God. There are times when poker is about more than playing cards-moments when we admit that our lives are broken, and that without the help of our fellow Jews and God, we'll never make it.

At these moments, poker is a name for God. The games are merely rehearsals for the times when we need each other-rehearsals for sacred moments where God is present.

Art Grand is a member of Temple Or Rishon in Orangevale, California and chair of the URJ's Commission on Worship, Music, and Religious Living.