Getting closer to God doesnt have to be an all-or-nothing deal


Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30

Isaiah 61:10-63:9

Playing poker may never have been so popular as it has been in the last decade. The card game has sustained a huge surge of interest in the past years, as new camera technologies helped it become an event for spectators. A recent news piece that I saw about the game convinced me that while I would not personally be very good at it (I’m not much of a gambler and I have a terrible poker face), it has within it an important spiritual message just in time for the High Holy Days. Not as a commentary on the propriety of card playing, but rather as a metaphor for the challenges that face us as people.

In the middle of this week’s Torah portion, Moshe gives the Jewish people a little pep talk designed to encourage repentance. He urges the Jews never to give up on the opportunity to better themselves, and says that it is “not too far from you, it is not in the heavens that you should say ‘who will ascend to heaven and bring it down to us?’ ” (30:11-12). Indeed, repentance is something that anyone can do, right here and now.

Yet it would seem that there are better forms of encouragement out there. If you want me to feel that I can do it, tell me that “it isn’t even just close — it is right here in front of you” and I’ll feel empowered to forge ahead. But telling me that it isn’t incredibly far away and distant, that it isn’t in heaven, leaves me thinking that it might still be somewhat far away. Not so very heartening!

My beloved yeshiva teacher Rav Parnes offered an insight relevant to this question. He noted that human nature is oriented toward accurately perceiving the relative closeness or distance of physical things. Some are right at hand and readily available, and others are a bit further out of reach but can be touched if I draw near to them.

This makes sense, as they are tangible items. But when sensing spiritual closeness, we tend either to feel HaShem’s intimate nearness (“HaShem is with me”), or else feel particularly distant and disconnected. We see God as either totally immanent or completely transcendent; rarely do we allow for awareness of a middle position of relative proximity.

We often think along similar lines in reflecting on the quality of our behavior as well. We ask if we are “good” or “bad” people, as if those were the only two options. But truth is rarely so black and white, and the answer is probably “somewhere in-between and trying to go in the right direction.”

Are we perfect? Certainly not. Are we awful? Here, again, the answer is no.

The Torah gives us a little reality check in this portion that precedes Rosh Hashanah, reminding us that just because we don’t feel close to HaShem doesn’t mean that we are utterly distant. Sometimes we feel closer than others, but that doesn’t mean that we are ever irredeemably far from our loving Creator. Even if we aren’t quite where and whom we hoped to be, we are never out of the range to get significantly closer.

And that is where poker comes back, offering a useful metaphor. The game measures success in terms of total winnings. Some hands, like the endeavors of our lives, should be curtailed and folded before they drain too much of our resources. Others should be allowed to go as long as possible. We’ll lose some that we thought we would win, and win a few that looked hopeless. But the total gains at the end of the night are what matters.

Or to use the language of a pastime more familiar to my childhood, no one would fault a baseball player who didn’t hit a home run or even a base hit each time. But getting up to the plate for decades and managing to hit one out of three will get you into the Hall of Fame.

Spiritual closeness is not an all-or-nothing affair, and we don’t need to do everything perfectly to be successful. Success at reconnecting isn’t in the sky — it is just within reach of our outstretched arms.


Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at [email protected]