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Playing It Right

by | Feb 19, 2004

It looked exactly the same as it had back then. But the thrill was gone, vanished together with the challenge.

It was a navy, hard plastic square case, snapped shut for easy portability, marked with raised white lettering underlined by a double line for emphasis. Hi-Q. Back then in those pre-computer days, when good old-fashioned board games kept kids occupied, I spent many a bedridden morning or bored afternoon, trying to beat my highest Hi-Q score. The objective of the neat little game was to remain with as few pegs as possible on the board. The ultimate goal was to be able to show off an empty board, but for one peg in the center. Attached to the game was a little leaflet with a key for evaluating the player’s prowess; Three pegs scored excellent, two pegs left was outstanding, and one peg left in the center of the board constituted genius. Usually I wavered somewhere between excellent and outstanding, and was determined to earn the coveted but elusive title of genius.

And so, driven by the challenge and the will to succeed, I sat, lips pursed in single-minded concentration, weighing my every move. In pursuit of my goal, I carried the little case along with me on trips, and brought it to the dentist’s waiting room. At eight years old, I thought it to be the most brilliant puzzle around. And so, when I spotted the game, looking very much the same, on the shelf of a discount store some twenty years later, I jumped for it.

Fingering the case with nostalgia, I couldn’t wait to sit down at the dining room table for a stimulating round of what had been my favorite game. I felt an impatient childish impulse to get my work done, my tasks finished, so I could be free to challenge myself with the little board, chucking off pegs with deliberate moves.

Well, I was disappointed. The game was the same, but I suppose I had grown. After two or three tries, wherein I managed to alternately score “superb” and “outstanding”, I mastered “the trick”. There was a pattern, a sure- fire, no-fail technique to the game. If you followed that strategy carefully, you were inevitably left with a single peg in the center – genius. I should have been thrilled. After all these years, I had finally hit genius. And now I could accomplish the feat again and again. As many times as I wanted to be a genius. The heady feeling, though, was gone. That wonderful swirl of ecstasy, that gush of triumph, had somehow vanished, together with my new discovery. I clasped the case shut, slid it to the middle of the table, and wistfully ended my Hi-Q career.

If I knew the trick, there was no point in playing the game. So I put it aside for my nine year old son, who could still relish the crisp challenge of the game.

Sighing with the anti-climax of dissolved anticipation, I surveyed the dining room, fumbling for something to do. Not that I was wanting for chores that could occupy the empty slot of time. Time has a way of being instantly filled, in much the same manner as a hole in a pail of water, never leaving much of a vacuum to fill. But I had been rather looking forward to the thrill of competing with myself, and found myself absently scanning the room for some substitute activity.

It was then that my eyes hit the Sefiras Haomer chart. As my gaze rested on the bold lettering, I noticed some faint notations pencilled in on the side of the chart. It was a list of goals I had been trying to achieve in preparation for Shavuos last year. Or had it been the year before? I didn’t quite remember, but what struck me was the fact that the resolutions could just as well have been written this year. The very same issues I had been struggling to overcome whenever it was that I had put my aspirations into writing, were as pertinent today as they ever were. Not one of the goals I had set for myself, was irrelevant now, as my eyes beheld the faint markings of hope, of promise, and commitment.

Only seconds before, I had been, bemoaning my lost challenge. I had forgotten about spiritual Hi-Q. The perpetual struggle to drop all the extraneous pegs, leaving only One in the center of our lives; the ongoing challenge of skipping over obstacles and removing hindrances, until there remained The One and Only Central Point, the Focus of all focuses, Purpose of all purposes.

And unlike its physical counterpart, although I’ve been playing the game for some decades now, I still haven’t mastered “the trick”, still haven’t come up with some flawless formula that ensures I will emerge a “genius”. Each time around there are new nuances. Each time I battle with unfamiliar loopholes, brand new challenges. I’m faced with the enormous challenge of uprooting and obliterating undesirable traits; I’m entrusted with the lofty task of keeping my eyes ever on the Center, ever on the goal. I feel myself stretching and growing, and yet as many times as I triumph, I can’t seem to reach a level of everlasting victory, a feeling of finally having transcended my internal struggles for good. No matter how many rounds I play, I can never relegate my success to previous victories; I can never remove my pegs with the well oiled ease of an almost distracted player. Sometimes, after a particularly difficult round, I nearly droop with discouragement.

The list on the Sefira chart seemed to encapsulate the constancy of this unrelenting upward climb. And yet unlike the acute frustration that often fills me, I was suddenly sparked by a new insight, a fresh flash of inspiration. What had previously crept into my heart as the insidious worm of despair, suddenly appeared to me as a delicate silkworm, inching its way ever forward, spinning silken strands of breathtaking beauty with its ceaseless perseverance.

Avodas Hashem (serving G-d) wasn’t meant to be depressing; it was meant to be uplifting.

There is exhilaration in the fact that one never outgrows the challenge of trying yet again. A Jew’s life is infused with meaning precisely because there is no quick trick to attaining spiritual genius. Indeed, Avoda is the name of the game.

Copyright Yated Ne’eman