Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – What Are the Odds?


Operation Inspiration

Often, my columns are about things I witnessed, noted, or experienced, and I share my impressions with my readers as a sort of idea exchange. Sometimes, though, people come to me and ask for my approach, and that becomes the basis for the column.

It is indeed gratifying when people send me messages like the time someone wrote, “I need to find a way to be dan l’kaf zechus in a certain situation, and if anyone can do it, it’s you.” That was a great compliment to me and I do try to live up to it daily.

Someone recently sent me a photo of a shopping cart sitting in a parking space with the caption, “I don’t know one successful person who leaves their shopping cart in the middle of the parking lot. If you’re too big for the small things, you’re too small for the big things.” Whoa. It’s quite humbling to see what people associate with me.

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Well, this time, someone brought a situation to my attention hoping to get my thoughts, and now I’m going to share them with you. It seems that a certain football game (American football, for my readers across the pond,) saw one team leading the other with a score of 27-0. A fellow placed an online sports bet for the team to win, which is apparently allowed during the game, even though the odds of losing the bet were so small that they made the potential payout relatively miniscule.

He bet $1.4 million, and could expect a modest return on his investment of $11,200. But hey, free money is free money, and it’s a sure thing, right? Wrong. The other team ended up coming back to win, making this fellow lose $1.4 million though his bet had a 99.2% chance of being successful. Did I mention odds mean nothing to Hashem? Maybe that was arranged specifically to make this guy lose his money like that.

People on social media such as Twitter ridiculed the fellow for making such a foolish bet for such a tiny potential return. They made it sound like a ridiculous choice. But was it? Sure, in hindsight it’s easy to say he made a mistake, but what if he’d won?

People would have commented on how lucky he was to have that money in the betting account to work with and take advantage of the “free money.” They’d have said what a no-brainer it was to pick up that cash with the obvious win. It’s easy to comment when the story has played out and pretend we’d have had the same opinions beforehand, but not in the moment of risk when we think we see clearly.

Imagine a surgery had a 99.2% chance of success. Would anyone not go forward with it? It’s all but a sure thing! How many business deals do we make with odds of success that are much lower? So many businesses fail yet people keep trying. So how can we call this guy a fool?

Our Gedolim have reminded us that odds don’t mean everything because Hashem is in control of everything and even a small chance of success is a viable option that Hashem can do. An operation with a 5% chance of success versus 90% is not a reason to believe He won’t offer a refuah shelaima. So where did he go wrong?

One thing people are taking issue with in the betting case is the risk-reward ratio. They say that even the slightest risk of losing so much overshadows the tiny return he stood to make, and that’s a very valid point.

As Jews, we are constantly called upon to “play the odds.” We are to decide at each moment whether the choices we make will pay off, or make us lose big. It’s called, “Cheshbono Shel Olam,” in the words of Chazal, as we compare the rewards for a mitzvah against the losses we incur to do them, and the losses of sins versus the miniscule payback we expect.

Just like this bettor, when the game seems to be obviously won with almost no chance to lose, we can make a disastrous decision. Looking back, we’ll kick ourselves much harder than him, though, because his financial loss is temporary, just as long as he lives, while a losing wager on a mitzvah or aveira can have eternal consequences.

We should be asking ourselves, “Will the next words to come out of my mouth cause good in the world? Will they bring peace between people? Or, perhaps, could they be misconstrued or cause hurt? How much do I need to worry about the fallout? What are the odds that this will turn out badly?”

I can’t answer those questions for anyone, but this story brings home the message of how important the decisions are. In Mishlei it says, “Fortunate is the one who is always fearful…” It doesn’t mean to walk around frightened by everything. On the contrary, we are supposed to be secure in Hashem’s protection. But it does mean that we should be careful about being so sure of ourselves and our decisions that we make foolish ones.

Contemplate carefully before you bet on yourself, and make sure you can handle it if you’ve chosen wrong. Don’t do something you’ll have to look back on tomorrow and wonder what you were thinking – or IF you were thinking at all.


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