The National Basketball Association’s G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) debate was rekindled earlier this summer as ESPN rolled out its riveting, 10-part documentary series titled “The Last Dance.”
It came just in time for us basketball junkies who are desperate for any footage we can get our hands on during the NBA’s COVID-19 hiatus. The series focused on the final championship season of the 1990s Chicago Bulls dynasty.
As I eagerly watched episode after episode, I was transported back to a time when my childhood buddies and I would lace up our Air Jordan sneakers, wag our tongues and pretend to glide gracefully through the air (well, I believe we elevated at least a few inches off the ground!) in an attempt to “be like Mike.”
Sorry, LeBron James fans. For me, Michael Jordan is and always will be the G.O.A.T. (unless LeBron wins a championship or two in a Lakers uniform, or I learn a bit more about Bill Russell). Jordan’s unwavering belief in his ability to win, no matter what obstacles stood in his way, set him apart from the rest.
Whether in a card game with teammates or in an Olympics scrimmage with all-time greats, Jordan was relentless, never giving up until he won. In the famous “flu game,” he contracted food poisoning the night prior to a finals game. By morning, he could barely lift his body.
Nevertheless, that evening he lifted his team to victory, only to collapse into a teammate’s arms, needing to be physically supported off the court, upon the final whistle blow.
Jordan proved that you can do so much when you believe in yourself.
Our recent Bamidbar Torah portions relay a similar message. The desert generation did not have an easy time. They suffered, complained and were punished, time and again. They lacked faith in themselves. Who can blame a nation only a year or so out of such demoralizing and crushing treatment in Egypt?
The sin of the meraglim, the spies, brings all of this to the fore. Some say their sin was that they did not believe in themselves.
Consider the spies’ deflated reaction upon witnessing towering giants in the Land of Israel: “In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes!”
Imagine someone on Jordan’s team sharing something like this about an upcoming opponent. Jordan would make sure this teammate stayed intact (to put it lightly) and didn’t demoralize the team.
Yehoshua and Calev responded in similar fashion, reminding the nation that they can succeed: “We can surely go up and take possession of it, for we can indeed overcome it!”
This is the attitude the Torah expects us to adopt. It took time, however, time for it to sink in. A new generation had to be born, 40 years later, that never experienced servitude. They were able to confidently enter the Land and defeat their enemies.
The ESPN series concludes with Jordan’s team dissolving after six championship titles, only to wonder what could have been if they were able to join together for another “last dance.”
But the story of Am Yisrael is far from over. We are still here, baruch Hashem, after so many enemies have tried to keep us down. A lot of this is due to our faith in ourselves.
So when life presents challenges that appear unsurpassable, when you are faltering and doubting yourself, just remember the Torah’s encouraging message, voiced by a few of our very own all-time greats: “We can surely go up and take possession of it, for we can indeed overcome it!”
Rabbi Dr. Eli Yoggev serves Pikesville’s Beth Tfiloh Congregation. He will speak on “Jewish Perspectives on Extraterrestrial Llfe” on July 16 from 7-8 p.m. The livestream Zoom event will be presented by the Jewish Museum of Maryland as a lead-up to its fall exhibit, “Jews in Space: Members of the Tribe in Orbit.” For information, click here.