‘But you beat him, didn’t you?’

Shabbat a.m. at the new Legacy: breakfast in “Stanley’s Bistro,” where stories are told and news exchanged over good food and excellent coffee. Recent musings after these mornings often remind me of a true-life story told by the esteemed Rabbi Abraham Twerski in his book of family recollections. 

From boyhood, he still remembered throughout his life the many rabbis who were frequent Shabbat weekend visitors in the Twerski home. One such visitor approached Abraham — a young teen at the time, but already with a reputation for excellence at chess — challenging him to a game. Which the boy accepted with some trepidation, not sure that this was a permitted activity for a Saturday afternoon. But since it was a rabbi who had proposed the match…

Later the same day, Abraham was summoned to his father’s study, and he responded with more trepidation. Had he made a mistake in accepting the challenge to the game? And that was indeed the subject of conversation. His father berated the boy, gently, but it was still a kind of punishment, for playing chess on Shabbat. “But the rabbi asked me to,” Abraham responded. There followed a brief lecture about what activities were proper for Saturday afternoons beyond reading and resting, and the sad fact that sometimes even a rabbi (maybe especially a rabbi!) should know better than to indulge in board games then. The boy wondered what his punishment might be, but there wasn’t any: just a pointed reminder of what was proper on Shabbat, what was not, and how to learn to tell the difference and sometimes say “No thanks,” even to a rabbi. 

This kind of fatherly encounter was how and why Abraham learned much, remembered all, put this advice to good use in his own life and passes it on today to others in his speeches and writings: in this case, an entire book about what he had taken away from a “summons” like this. After a few gentle words and not-so-gentle reminders, the boy was “dismissed” — rather formally — from his father’s study. He said thank you, turned his back as he walked toward the door, but was suddenly turned around again when the senior Twerski called out to him: “But you beat him, didn’t you?” Of course Abraham had, and the two then shared a special laugh together. 

This is how a wise father passed his wisdom to a son who was certainly not reluctant to learn. This was one of many gentle but never-to-be ignored or forgotten lessons Abraham was taught throughout his childhood — why he remembered them so clearly, and why he knew that he should write them down and pass them on to others. Which he did, and continued to do, in the richness of a long life of study and service. 

Abraham Twerski often dealt with young drug addicts in his work as a psychiatric counselor at a mental hospital. His approach to those he saw professionally was as gentle, yet as impossible to ignore and as memorable in life after receiving such advice, as was a young boy’s “reprimand” by his father, followed by a bit of gentle humor: “But you beat him, didn’t you?” Today, many addicts have learned from him, with similar gentle humor, how to beat their own addictions.

We can’t all be like Abraham Twerski. Even if we’ve been lucky enough to have remarkable parents like his father, we might not have learned the same lessons in the same easy-to-take but never-to-be forgotten way. Luckily for me, my father was like that. A blessing that lasts forever…

Harriet Gross can be reached at

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