Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Ha’Azinu (Deuteronomy 32) Basketball’s 3-Point Line and Judaism

Look at a list of NBA champions and you’ll see that basketball’s history has been dominated by elite, very tall, Centers. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain dominated the ’60s. They were followed by Kareem in the ’70s and ’80s, Hakeem Olajuwon in the ’90s, and Shaquille O’Neal in the 2000s.  But that’s no longer the case. What happened? How can a league be dominated by big men for so long, and then have their position become perhaps the most forgotten role on the floor? Look no further than the introduction of the 3-point line. When it was introduced in 1980 it held little significance but by 2008 three pointers officially surpassed free throws as the second most important scoring method in the league. As a result, the way the game played and how it’s coached have drastically changed. What does this have to do with Moses’ parting message to the Jewish people, the nation he had led for decades?   Remember bygone days; understand the years of each generation; ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will tell it to you” [Deut. 32:7].   This verse emphasizes the obvious message of appreciating where we come from. I can’t begin to find my identity as a Jew in the 21st century if I don’t know where I come from. Whether you’re working for Apple or the Army, joining Fedex or a fraternity, one of the first parts of your training will be the history of the organization, what necessitated its existence, and how they remain true to it even though worldly conditions have changed. Why should being Jewish be any different? We are instructed to understand our history and ask our elders, those connected to previous generations, to tell us why and how we evolved, and then navigate the future accordingly.   After we have been told to remember the past, why do we need the next part of the verse, understand the years of each generation? It appears to be a poetic repetition but Rabbi Menachem Ben-Zion Zachs (1896-1987) suggests that it actually expresses a classic Jewish concept.   It is not enough to understand history and apply it to each generation. The word “understand” (Binu) in “Understand the years of each generation” can also mean “different.”  Although understanding our history is crucial, we must also understand that each generation is different. What worked in earlier generations might not be applicable now. For example, whereas spying in the past was done by a country sending undercover agents to uncover information, that methodology will not be as effective today as hacking a private server.   How does this apply to us? Many talk about the need to change Judaism to adapt to changing times. This is not a new idea—the enlightenment tried it in Eastern and Western Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, but they left no heirs, in the form of people or ideals. Others came to America in the beginning of the 20th century and said that if we didn’t change Judaism, it would die. The only thing that died were the institutions that subscribed to that idea—and if some are still around, every census and statistic says they won’t be here in 50 years. What then are we to do with Judaism in the 21st century—are we to teach and live it exactly as was done in the past?   Let us bring back the Basketball analogy. The way the game is played has changed, but the rules haven’t. No one suggested lowering or widening the basket to help those who  are having a tough time adapting to the 3-point line. No one suggested making the court smaller or having shorter quarters. The game’s rules remained intact; the only thing that changed is how it is played.   So too with Judaism. Sabbath, Kosher, Passover or any other mitzvah hasn’t changed, but we practice them in a unique 21st century way. In the past gefilte fish graced the standard Shabbos kiddush whereas today it might be replaced by sushi. The treats of Passover were potato kugel and Slivovitz (plum brandy that can only be consumed by men over 80), whereas today one can find Swiss chocolate and Belgian waffles. In the past, Torah was studied almost exclusively in the synagogue but from podcasts to YouTube channels, Torah can be accessed anywhere at any time. Shabbos hasn’t become obsolete, to the contrary, in the tech based universe in which we live, taking a digital day off has become a novel 21st century idea. A day of devoted to the things most important is as appropriate and beneficial as ever. Yes, we need to have a message that speaks to millennials and Gen Z, but that doesn’t mean we need to discard the very things that got us here and continue to ensure our existence. The Jewish family and serious Jewish education are two factors that will never change in being the most significant ways to ensure continuity in our communities.  Last year NBA star Amar’e Stoudemire converted to Judaism; his message resonates with the idea we’re speaking about. “I’m pretty familiar with the teachings, it’s just a matter of now being able to express that in my actions and the way I live.” That is what Jews have done for centuries, and if we are to survive, we need to do it in the 21st century. It begins with knowing, not changing, the teachings, and then expressing them in the way you live.  As we go into the new year, may we all commit to learning more about Judaism and expressing it in the way we live.