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Hanukkah and The Queen's Gambit

December 3, 2020 | by Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen

People love the underdog.

The Queen's Gambit, the hugely popular Netflix mini-series, has received rave reviews. The riveting story of an orphaned chess prodigy, struggling with emotional demons as she rises to world chess champion, resonates deeply with people (and has made chess the new rage).

What's all the fuss about?

People love the underdog. The Harvard Business Review and other publications have explored "the underdog effect" in the context of branding, elections and sports. And the more extreme the challenges, the more people root for the person to rise above.

The protagonist in The Queen's Gambit has an incredible gift for chess. But her life circumstances make it incredibly unlikely that such a gift would ever be discovered, let alone nurtured.

Even when those obstacles are overcome, the self-sabotage, social isolation and baggage from her past continue to weigh her down. Ultimately, it’s an amazing story of triumph and inner-will.

The year 2020 has been the Year of the Underdog. This year, we are all struggling. We’ve had to dig deep inside of ourselves and overcome our basic instincts and need for social connection.

Multi-variable hardships and past emotional trauma have resurfaced with abandon. As the saying goes, “Everyone you meet (or don't meet!) is fighting a battle you know nothing about."

In this milieu, the holiday of Hanukah couldn't come soon enough. Hanukkah is the festival of the Underdog.

It commemorates two miraculous events. How a band of outnumbered warriors could be victorious over the powerful Greek forces. And more famously, it reminds us that a tiny candle can wondrously remain aflame and triumph beyond natural expectations.

In Jewish tradition, the candle represents the flame of the soul, the life force of a human being. As the great sage Rabbi Israel Salanter (1809-1883) commented, “As long as the candle is still lit, it is possible to rectify and fix.”

Hanukkah is also a time for gratitude.

We recite the Hallel prayer of praise to God for all eight days of the festival.

It is tricky to have gratitude in such perilous times. Yet, if our candle still burns and we stand together with family relatively intact, there is much to have appreciation for.

We are all underdogs fighting against this pandemic. We are rooting hard for each other, our country and the world.

In chess, the Queen’s Gambit is a tactic of apparent sacrifice to actually garner an unseen advantage. We have sacrificed much, but our advantage is our perseverance and persistence.

A favorite mantra of mine is, “Hold the vision and trust the process.”

Now is the time to express gratitude for what we have, remind ourselves of where we are going and know events are still unfolding.


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