Wednesday, 06 Nov 2013

Written by Adam Frankenberg

Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov are two of the greatest, if not the greatest chess players of all time. I remember following their World Championship Match in 1985 played over twenty four games.  Later on I would study their,earlier, titanic and abortive match played out in 1984 and abandoned after forty eight games. Both Kasparov and Karpov were products of the Soviet Chess System, which with the respect due to both Hungary and Israel has produced most of the world’s best players, but they both had their own style of play that could not have more of a contrast from each other. Karpov’s style was the very epitome of Soviet Chess, brutal, rather ugly and utterly, devastatingly effective. It was all passed pawns and defended pieces, it was meat grinder chess.  And as I say brutally effective.

Kasparov on the other hand, was like a spectre from the romantic age of chess, risen and returned to haunt the modern, unromantic, and mechanistic game.  Kasparov’s game was filled with gambits, sacrifices and rapid exchanges of pieces.  Nevertheless this combined with the occasional lighting burst of inspiration made Kasparov almost unplayable.

I felt that watching them play was close to seeing what it might have been like had Marshal Zhukov ever engaged Napoleon on the field of battle.

And yet if you looked at their seventy two games, played over the 1984 and 1985 world championships then at times an odd thing would happen. Karpov would start playing like Kasparov or Kasparov like Karpov and when this happened they did not play well.

In life as in chess, if we attempt to be something that we are not then the results are unlikely to be positive.

We all, each one of us, have a peculiar and unique set of skills, abilities and qualities.  Yet it is all too easy for us to look at other people, to our role models and not so much attempt to learn from them, but rather to be them. Even if done for the best of motives, this attempt is highly unlikely to  result in positive fruits.

As expressed by a famous hasidic teacher, Rebbe Zusya of Hanipol (1718-1800). ‘In heaven they will not ask me. “why were you not Moses?” rather they will ask me, “Why were you not Zusya?”’.

In this week’s Parashah Vayetze, Jacob leaves his parental home in Beer-Sheba, and journeys back to Haran where after his nocturnal vision he meets, first Rachel at the well and then later, Leah. His future wives and the future matriarchs of the Jewish people, matriarchs whom we in the  progressive movements recall by name in every service during the Amidah.  

Even  the traditional version of the Amidah, which leaves out the names of the Matriarchs, Is still formulated as, ‘Blessed are You Lord our God, and God of our ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ Rather than simply ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.This formulation is a reference to the Biblical scene of Moses and the burning bush, which is itself an example of intertextuality, where one Biblical passage makes reference to another one, with Jacob’s encounter with God, recounted in this week’s Parashah, Genesis 28:13. A rabbinic teaching on the phase, ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ Is that each of the Patriarchs had their own way of approaching God.
Because of God’s oneness it is unthinkable that, ‘the Shield of Abraham’, is different from, ‘the Fear of Isaac’, in terms of essence. God’s radical otherness, is manifest at least in part by unchangingness, But how the Patriarchs themselves related to God was indeed different, Abraham was not the same as Jacob.

It was, perhaps, Jacob’s recognition of this, that moved him to exclaim, ‘Mah Norah Ha-Makom Hazeh’ (Genesis 28: 17). God’s transcendence combined with the inherent responsibilities which arise out of our personal relationship with God and because of our individuality are no small matters.

It should also be remembered that Jacob has had this experience immediately after he has impersonated his brother, and thereby denied his authentic selfhood in the previous sidra, Toledot.

We are unique, Jacob is not Abraham, and nor is Rachel Leah. Despite the fact that Leah will impersonate her sister Rachel, much to Jacob’s distress.

But, it is especially difficult in an education context, where we need to learn from our teachers and our colleagues but we should not try to be them. We might admire them for any number of reasons but we cannot be them. They are unique just as we are unique.

This does not mean we should not learn from them, indeed to think that there is anyone from whom we cannot learn would be arrogance.

As it says in Pirke Avot, ‘Ben Zoma says, “who is wise, he who learns form every person”.

After their careers as professional chess players had ended Kasparov and Karpov’s careers went in different directions.  Kasparov entered the world of Russian politics where he played to his strengths as an outsider, a free thinker; while Karpov stayed within the world of chess as a senior official of the World Chess Federation. However, both found time to nurture the next generation of chess players.

At the end of this week’s Parashah Jacob sets out to return home, only now he is not an isolated traveller, but rather a husband and father.  More importantly Jacob was further along the road of accepting himself as he was.

The recognition of our true abilities can be unnerving, and acting on them with integrity even more challenging: life is after all much more complex than chess, as Karpov and Kasparov undoubtedly discovered. However, with both effort and support it is, I think, something that we can all achieve.

Keyn yehi ratzon: Amen


Student rabbi Adam Frankenberg
November 2013


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.