Be a Mensch

In the past six months, most of us have watched a lot of TV…  Two documentaries, in particular, grabbed my attention.  The first was The Last Dance, about Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls and his quest to win a sixth NBA championship.  The second was Muse, auto-biography, of the late Kobe Bryant, of the Los Angeles Lakers.

When a Rabbi does anything, he’s always thinking, “Can I use this in a sermon?”  These shows seemed like a good way to speak about striving for excellence- be it in sports, or career, or our personal lives.  Also, I began to seriously think:  “Maybe Professional Basketball is what I ought to do after I retire from the Rabbinate.  After all, it’s a good way to stay fit.  Most importantly, you don’t have to wear a jacket and tie at work!  Some of you may laugh at my “hoop dreams”, but let me tell you, if nobody is guarding me, and If I don’t bounce the ball off my foot, seven out of ten times, I could make a lay-up… from the right side.  And here’s the best thing: I’ve already got a theme song!  You remember the Gatorade ad:

“Like Mike… If I could be… like Mike!   Hey! I am Mike!

So I watched The Last Dance taking notes, trying to see what I could learn from M.J. about becoming “the greatest of all time.”  This is what Jordan told me: “My mentality was to go and win at all cost.  If you don’t want to live that regimented mentality, then you don’t need to be alongside of me, because I’m going to ridicule you until you get on the same level, and if you don’t get on the same level with me, then it’s going to be hell for you.”   Jordan got to be the greatest by being mean, petty, and ruthless.  He was hypercompetitive, vicious on the court- and sometimes off, as well.  It was “Win at all costs” and that including punching out opponents who got in his way or challenged him, and sometimes hitting his own teammates if they didn’t meet his expectations.  When Michael Jordan was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame, he made an acceptance speech which showed little grace or class, using it as an opportunity to get even with people he held grudges against.  We all know that many people are sore losers; Jordan, it turns out, was a sore winner.

Just before the Pandemic hit, Kobe Bryant and eight others were killed in a helicopter crash in California.  The tragedy was compounded by the loss of young children, on their way to a Basketball game- including Bryant’s daughter.  The grief in Los Angeles, and even across the nation, was overwhelming, as was evidenced by the funeral, which was watched by millions on TV.  Before his death, Kobe had participated in a film called Muse, that delved into what made him tick- as a basketball player, and as a man.

Back in 2003, Bryant had been arrested for the sexual assault of a 19 year old hotel employee; he claimed the affair was consensual; she did not.  The notoriety almost destroyed his family, and his career.   Fans outside of Los Angeles booed him mercilessly.  Then, while watching the movie Kill Bill, Kobe saw a black mamba, one of the deadliest snakes on earth.  “The length, the bite, the strike, the temperament… Yeah, that’s me!”  He developed an alter ego- The Black Mamba. “ Become a deadly snake that will kill its prey.  I’m destroying everybody that steps on the court.”  When Bryant returned to playing basketball, the wholesome young athlete was gone.  In its place was a man who could no longer convincingly portray innocence.  It was not just a way to play basketball; it was a philosophy of how to live your life even off the court.  It’s about obsession, about prioritizing your professional goals over having a normal balanced life.  It’s about playing without fear, mastering your craft, and wanting not only to win, but to dominate.

After watching these two shows, I began to have doubts about whether becoming a great basketball player is really for me.  Instead of thinking about my three-point shot, I began asking myself Yom Kippur type questions:  What really matters in Life?  Fame?  Fortune? Championships?  Going down in history as the greatest of all time?  How many people will ever achieve that?  And if they actually have the talents to give it a shot, is it really worth the price?     Being The Black Mamba helped Kobe Bryant win 5 championships.  But he still wasn’t as good as Michael Jordan, who had 6.  And neither one came close to Bill Russell, who has 11.

In 1949, George Orwell, famous for his novels 1984 and Animal Farm wrote an essay about sports, which he described as “War, without shooting.”  Orwell was horrified at what he saw on the soccer fields; the Duke of Wellington long before had confirmed Orwell’s conclusion: “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”

What do Jericho parents hope for when they sign up their kids for Little League or Travel teams? Giving their kids an alternative to sitting around playing video games?  Getting fresh air and exercise?  Understanding the importance of team work? Learning how to be a good sport- a gracious loser and a humble winner? Or do we figure that sports will get my kid a full paid scholarship to a NCAA Division One school?  Or a lucrative career in Professional Sports?  We’ve had State High School Champions here, and even a few college athletes, but after 40 years, I’m still waiting for even one of our successful student-athletes to be able to get me seats on the floor of the Garden next to Spike Lee. (Unless, of course, they work in the Accounting Office…)

One of my greatest frustrations after 40 years is that so many of our families prioritize Sports over Hebrew School:  Kids came to Hebrew School but left early for a game, or skipped classes completely because of soccer or baseball.

One of my failures as a Rabbi was not explaining convincingly what Hebrew School is really all about.  You think it’s about preparing a kid for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  It’s not.  That could be done by a tutor in a matter of weeks.  It’s not to teach kids when to bend and bow and take three steps back while reciting the Amidah.  That could be done by attending a few services and watching the Cantor and the Rabbi. (And do you really care about that, anyway?)

It’s not to teach them what important event occurred in the year 586 bce.  That could be accessed by googling it on a smart phone.  It’s not to teach them enough Hebrew so when they go on Birthright  they could order Pizza on Ben-Yehuda St.  (The Hebrew word for “Pizza”, by the way, is “Pee-tza.”).

So what is the point of five years of Hebrew School?  I found the answer while watching more TV.

One of my favorite movies is the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer.  It’s based on the book by Fred Waitzkin about his son Josh.  At the age of 6, Josh became interested in chess, and quickly showed himself to be a child prodigy.  Josh’s dad finds his son a teacher, Bruce Pandolfini, played by Ben Kingsley.  The teacher tells his student:  “Do you know what it means to have contempt for your opponent?”   Josh answers “No.”  The teacher explains:  “It means to hate them.  You have to hate them Josh.  They hate you.”  And the seven year old replies: “But I don’t hate them.”  And his teacher answers:  “Well, you’d better!”  The movie turns out to be the struggle for the soul of this young boy.  The teacher on the one side- almost like the devil in cartoons on the left shoulder whispering into his ear.  And Josh’s mother, like the angel on his right shoulder.  Josh’s mother, played by Joan Allen, tells her son:  “You have a good heart.  And that’s the most important thing in the world.”

Forget about The Last Dance and Michael Jordan.  Forget about Muse and Kobe Bryant.  Forget about being the G.O.A.T., or the Black Mamba.  Forget about being the NBA’s M.V.P. or about hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.  All you really need to know in life is this:  Be a Mensch.

In a climactic scene in the movie, Josh is playing against a more experienced opponent, who tries to destroy Josh not only strategically, but psychologically.  Using his innate genius, Josh sees the end game that his opponent doesn’t.  Josh offers his hand; the other boy doesn’t understand.  Josh says:  “I’m offering you a draw.”  The other boy refuses; he wants nothing less than complete victory.  The game continues and Josh wins.  And he says to his adversary:  “Good game.”

After becoming a National master at 16, and the US Junior Chess Champion, the real Josh Waitzkin stopped playing Chess.  “The need that I felt to win, to win, to win all the time, as opposed to the freedom to explore the art more deeply, started to move me away from the game.”  Josh turned to Martial Arts and became a world champion in Aikido.  He is now a teacher.

You want to know what Hebrew School is really all about?  It’s teaching our kids that the most important thing in the world is to have a good heart, to be a Mensch. We try to do that with the stories we tell, and with the texts we teach, and with the mitzvah projects we do.  If you’d enroll your kid in the Mamba Sports Academy they would be taught to develop their potential- on and off the field, including physical activity, alongside emotional, social and mental growth in order to enhance the athlete’s skill set.  If you send your child to Hebrew School, or bring them with you to a service, here’s an example of what they’d learn every time they’d walk through the door and open up a Sacred book:

“The Talmud teaches: These are the things that make the world a better place, making it a little more like Heaven:

  1. Kibud Av va-Em: Taking care of parents when they can’t take care of themselves;
  2. Hashkamat Bet HaMidrash Shaharit v’Arvit: Coming to shul to make sure that those in need of a minyan find support;
  3. Hachnasat Orchim: Welcoming strangers- be they the new kid in school, the new hire at work, or the new immigrant to our country- to feel like someone is there to show them the ropes;
  4. Bikur Holim: Bringing healing to those who are ill, through whatever means are in our power;
  5. Hachnasat Kallah: Caring about those who are single, widowed, divorced, making them feel that that they are not alone;
  6. L’vayat Ha-Met- Attending a funeral, helping to bury the dead, comforting those who are in mourning;
  7. Hava’at Shalom: Being a peacemaker- within the family, among friends, and between warring factions in our country.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber learned this from the Hasidic tradition:

There are people who suffer very greatly… they go their way full of suffering.  But if they meet someone who is kind… their spirits can be lifted up with kindness.  It is no small thing to uplift someone’s spirit.

     We’re living through difficult times.  People are sick, people are dying. People are out of work.  People are lonely, people are depressed.  People are at their wits’ end

Making a game-winning last-second three point shot is thrilling- for a moment.  Helping lift someone’s spirit with an act of kindness can last forever.

You can try to “Be like Mike”- and you’ll probably end up falling short.  Or, you can “Be a mensch”- and help change the world.