Maybe White men can't jump, but Jewish men can definitely jam! I speak from experience. Despite standing slightly less than 6 feet tall, in high school I developed a wide array of dunks and I even won a slam dunk competition. I may have officially become a man after my bar mitzvah, but I had dreams of becoming "the man" through my leaping ability.
I loved the effortless, floating feeling combined with the powerful finish of a dunk. I look back most fondly, however, on the period when I was almost, but not quite, able to dunk. During the summer before my freshman year of high school, the rims of all basketball hoops seemed to be taunting and teasing me. I would jump and jump and jump, coming tantalizing closer each time yet still not successfully completing most dunks. Eventually my legs would feel as heavy as poorly made matzah balls and my hands would be ripped raw and often bleeding from scraping against the metal rim, but I never lost hope that someday I would be able to dunk.
I experienced many transcendent moments while playing basketball.
When I think about my past obsession with basketball and dunking, sometimes it seems like a big waste of time. During these moments of regret, I remind myself that I experienced many transcendent and even spiritual moments while playing basketball. As current Los Angeles Lakers basketball coach Phil Jackson wrote, "But, for me, basketball is an expression of life, a single, sometimes glittering thread, that reflects the whole."1
For additional comfort I review one of the teachings of the founder of Chassidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, which notes that a person can receive spiritual instruction from everything that he or she sees or hears. In that spirit, here are three important lessons I've learned from dunking and basketball.
1. Acknowledging the Source of Our Talents
After I first started dunking consistently early in my high school career, I quickly developed a big head. I could do something that only a few other people in our high school could do, and it was quite clear to me (and apparently only to me) that this made me important and special. I started acting the part, walking the halls like a stereotypically self-important "jock."
My bubble should have been popped by an interesting phenomenon. Other players, as well as curious bystanders, kept asking me, "What did you do to be able to leap so well? What is your secret?"
Well, what had I done? I had not used any special "strength shoes" or done any special exercises. Eventually I had to start inventing answers, because no one believed me when I told them the truth: I had not done anything special. My leaping ability was simply a gift from above, something which I had done very little to earn or deserve. Why had I been given this gift by God?
2. Accepting God's Plan
By the end of my high school basketball career I realized that I was not going to receive a basketball scholarship, which was extremely disappointing. Brandeis University, however, was interested and had been recruiting me (Brandeis does not give athletic scholarships). At Brandeis, for the first time in my life I became fascinated first by my relationship to Judaism and then later by Israel. I gradually became more religious and eventually immigrated to Israel, where I met and married Anat, my beautiful soul-mate. Today we live happily together in Israel.
If Brandeis had not been interested in me because of my basketball/dunking skills, I might never have become religious nor met my current wife! The Baal Shem Tov teaches that a leaf is turned over by a breeze only because God wanted this leaf to serve a specific function within the universe. It is hard to believe that my leaping ability eventually lead me to the Holy Land, but I see of no other way that I would have ended up here in Israel.
3. Never Give Up
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk taught that all souls descend on a ladder from heaven to Earth. There is a different ladder for each soul. Once souls arrive on Earth, their specific ladders are removed. Eventually the souls are commanded to jump back to heaven. Some become depressed and do not even try to go up because they fear their task is impossible. Most others jump up and down a few times, but eventually they too quit.
But there are a few souls who refuse to give up, despite seemingly insurmountable odds. These souls persevere and continue jumping until God eventually draws them up to heaven in an act of mercy2.
Upon reading this parable for the first time, I was instantly reminded of the period in my life when I struggled to consistently dunk. It took long hours of constant leaping and much failure, but I never gave up despite the possibility that I would never succeed. Eventually my striving was rewarded.
Since moving to Israel, I have found that religious striving is also rewarded. Sometimes I am intimidated or frustrated by challenging Hebrew texts, unfamiliar liturgy or less than noble urges. But I find that when I make a constant effort and do not quit, I will eventually improve religiously, with the help of God.
The tremendous roar of the crowd and surge of adrenaline after a dunk is truly memorable. But real reward comes to those who strive for days, months or even years to improve themselves spiritually and eventually succeed. For a brief moment they experience a transcendent connection to God that cannot be matched, not even by the most high-flying and crowd-pleasing dunk.
1. Sacred Hoops, by Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty.
2. God At The Edge, by Niles Elliot Goldstein