Torah Musings: Power in Numbers: Lessons from Dominoes and Rummikub


Power in Numbers: Lessons from Dominoes and Rummikub

Sarah Pachter

I’ll never forget the look of pure joy on the face of my daughter, Emmy, the first time I showed her a domino chain reaction. With a simple flick of my finger, one domino fell, which lead to hundreds toppling over. I explained to my older children that this chain reaction can theoretically continue for miles. In fact, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest domino chain reached 2.6 miles.

The game of dominoes becomes a wonderful physical representation of a famous Torah concept called mitzvah gorrerret mitzvah, “one mitzvah leads to another.” When we jump-start our day with a positive mitzvah, a chain reaction, or domino effect, can take place. And it is often the decisions we don’t attach much significance to which initiate that chain reaction.

The midrash and Zohar write: “If we open a hole the size of a needle, Hashem opens it wide enough for a chariot to pass through.”

Although I am a big proponent of small choices creating big change, this concept seemed to take it to a seemingly impossible level. I was skeptical, but also curious.

As part of my research, I read a book called, The One Thing by Gary Keller, which gave a fascinating visual about the game of dominoes. He explained that the domino effect was more powerful than just one small action leading to another small action. One domino, he believes, has the capacity to knock down something much larger.

This theory was discussed by Lorne Whitehead in The American Journal of Physics [Vol. 51, page 182 (1983)]. He stated that when a domino falls, it doesn’t just topple a smaller domino or even one of the same size; it can also conquer larger dominoes in its path. In fact, one domino has the capacity to topple dominoes up to 50% larger than its own mass.

In 2001, Whitehead’s experiment was reproduced in San Francisco using plywood to create eight dominoes, each 50% larger than the preceding domino. The first was only two inches, and the last close to three feet. The first domino made a small “tick” sound as it fell, while the last of the chain ended with a slam.

Imagine if this process were to continue. Although seemingly impossible, if the first tile is merely two inches tall, by the time you reach tile #18, you would be looking at a tile the size of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Tile #23 would be the height of the Eiffel tower and #31 would be higher than Mount Everest. Tile #57? Forget it, that’s almost the distance to the moon (Keller The One Thing, pg. 12)!

This visual gave me a new and profound understanding. One small action creates not only a chain reaction, but can create an enormous opening to develop a closer connection to G-d.

There is yet a deeper aspect of the domino effect. It is imperative the tiles be close enough together for their magic to work. If the tiles are spread too far apart, the preceding domino will not make contact with the domino that follows. In a certain sense, the dominos must be unified for their power to reach exponential levels.

Such is true of the Jewish people. When united, we are stronger, and when we join together in prayer and genuine concern, we are unstoppable. Yet, when we are exiled, fighting, or separated both physically and metaphorically, it becomes much harder to unify as one and reach our collective goals.

Dominoes is not the only game that shares this theme of unity. Rummikub for example, lends itself to the idea of unity as well.

Rummikub differs from most games because the specific number on the tile is irrelevant until placed next to another tile. When my family was playing, I noticed that when initially choosing tiles, my children weren’t hoping for a specific number. However, once they had certain tiles on deck, they began to wish for tiles that could be grouped with ones they had already chosen.

One cannot simply place a tile by itself. It must be grouped with others. Once the player can unite a minimum of three of the same numbers or string three consecutive numbers together, they are able to progress. Alternately, a player can join their tile to an already formed group on the board.  It is unity that gives a tile the power to win the game.

Such is true of life. It is UNITY that makes the individual more powerful.

Dave Ramsey explains the power of unity succinctly in his book, Entreleader. He explains that the Belgian draft horse is one of the largest and strongest horses. There are competitions held to determine which horse can pull the most weight. One horse alone is capable of pulling 8000 pounds. The intriguing aspect is that if you bring two horses together that have never even met, and cause them to pull together, they are able to pull almost 24,000 pounds.

One might assume that two horses would equate to double the weight pulled, but they can actually pull triple the amount! More fascinating is that two horses trained together can pull 32,000 pounds! That means two horses can together pull four times the weight when unified and trained as one (Entreleader by Dave Ramsey pg. 230-231).

In a similar vein, Rabbi Zacharia Wallerstein gave a lecture that incorporated a story of a wealthy man who owned many horses purchased around the globe. He spent over 400,000 rubles on each horse. One day, he loaded his wagon with his possessions and began his travels with his two most expensive horses. He fell into ditch, and the horses, despite their price tag, were not able to pull the wagon out. He hit one, but they don’t budge. He slapped the other, but to no avail, for the horses wouldn’t even move.

Along came another man with two donkeys. He said to the original man, “Unstrap your horses; allow my donkeys to help you out.”

“How can that be?” The first man chuckled skeptically. He continued, “These are horses worth four hundred thousand rubles each. One was selected in Saudi Arabia and the other at an auction in Egypt. Yours are merely cheap donkeys.”

The other man replied, “It’s worth a try, isn’t it? I don’t see any other options right now.”

The man strapped the donkeys onto the wagon, and he lifted his hand to hit one of them. Before his hand even made contact, the donkeys both used all their might and together succeeded in pulling the wagon out.

“How did you do that?” The astonished horse owner asked.

The man replied with a smile on his face, “You have to understand, you bought one horse from Saudi Arabia and the other from Egypt. My donkeys were born and raised together. They are like brothers. Your horse saw the other one was hit and didn’t care. My donkey saw that I was about to hit the other one, and they both gave their heart to pull it out.”

These “small” inexpensive donkeys when joined together achieved the impossible. Two heads aren’t just better than one; they can be four (or more) times better than one!

Like the horses, it is not the power of the number on the tile in dominoes or Rummikub, but rather the power in number. It makes no difference how small the number on the tile is, for when the tiles join together they can masterfully win. That is unity, and that is the secret to the success of the Jewish nation. When we unite as one, no matter how small the mitzvah, we can achieve anything. When we make small choices and unify ourselves, that’s when that domino effect can reach the moon.