You Gotta Be In It to Win It

As the old lottery tagline goes, you gotta be in it to win it.

Tonight’s Powerball drawing is up to $1.5 billion, an almost unfathomable sum of which to be in possession, never mind winning in one fell swoop. But since these lottery jackpots bank over time, and since no one won the last drawing, the prize money rolled over into this 10-digit amount.

I don’t normally play the lottery. My gambling has been limited to friendly poker games with friends and dreidel contests at Hanukkah. If I happen to find myself in a casino at some point, I may pull a slot machine or two. But with Powerball looming, it is hard to find an argument as to why not just buy a ticket. There is so much that I could and would do with the money: shore up my childrens’ education, pay off student loans, travel, do some home renovations and give to charity. The chance to be able to give so generously to tzedakah is attraction enough to enter.

In thinking about Powerball, beyond my own financial dreams, every time a lottery of this magnitude rolls around I also think about an old joke:

Yankel, an old pious Jew, observant all his life and living a life of poverty, one day in his morning prayers petitions God. “God,” he rises and prays, “All my life I have been an observant Jew. I have lived according to your Torah and your commandments, faithfully praying every day, observing Shabbat and all the festivals, keeping strictly kosher, giving what I can in charity. I have lived my life as a poor person, I have never had much. And while I have always been grateful for what I do have, and I have never asked you for much, would it be possible, just once, as I near the end of my life, that I win the lottery?” And with that he sits down.

Every morning, Yankel offers up the same prayer to God, to win the lottery. And each evening he goes to sleep having not won.

Weeks and months pass, and the same routine. Yankel prays to win the lottery each morning, and goes to sleep each night having not won. His mood turns from hopeful, to disappointed, to angry.

On the anniversary of his request, Yankel angrily addresses God: “Ruler of the Universe! One year ago today and every day since I made a simple request! I never asked you for anything my whole life, and now, just once I ask you for something. Why have you denied me this? Why have you not allowed me to win the lottery?!”

A booming voice from Heaven calls out: “Nu, Yankel, buy a ticket!”

As with any Jewish joke, there is a lesson embedded within. You gotta be in it to win it. We cannot just wait for things to come to us, we need to make an effort and do what we can do on our part to make things happen. We can’t win the lottery without buying a ticket first.

And as with the lottery, so too with Judaism and Jewish community.

So much of Jewish life is what we make of it. Judaism and Jewish life is a rich repository of wisdom, spirituality and tradition. And it will only be meaningful for us if we engage with it, if we study, explore, and practice. And the richness and depth comes from this engagement, when we bring ourselves to it. In the story, God was willing to meet halfway and provide a reward, but only if Yankel bought that ticket. Judaism will only provide rewards for us if we bring our whole self to it.

And Jewish community will provide rewards only if it is sustained by those who benefit from it. We can’t expect Jewish communal institutions and organizations to continue if we don’t contribute to its existence. We can’t expect rabbis and other Jewish teachers, leaders and thinkers to support us if we do not support them.

So I intend to buy a ticket. And I hope you do too.

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