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 at shiva 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
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.