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Parshat Devarim teaches us that sometimes, the journey is the destination

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When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar left the game in 1989 at age 42, no NBA player had ever scored more points, blocked more shots, won more Most Valuable Player Awards, played in more All-Star Games or logged more seasons. | Photo: Flickr

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I have two memories from my childhood of basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. One, going to a Lakers game in Los Angeles and watching him shooting his famous “skyhook,” where, at 7’2”, he was able to score thousands of points by hooking the ball over any other player’s raised arms. I remember reading that he worked for years on perfecting that difficult shot, but by the time I had a chance to see him in action, he was truly a pro at the legendary sky-hook.

The other memory is some time in the mid-70s when, as a child, I was sitting in a parked car on Wilshire Blvd., waiting for my mom who had run into Brentano’s Book Store to pick up a new book. While I was sitting in the passenger seat, the biggest man I had ever seen walked right past the car in a three-piece white suit. It was Abdul-Jabbar, but when he saw this kid staring at him with wide-eyed fascination, he glared at me with the sternest, scariest look I had ever seen on this seven-foot giant, and just kept on walking. It was traumatizing to see this heroic athlete look at me with such a mean scowl.

Many years later, long after Abdul-Jabbar retired from basketball, he traveled to Israel to meet Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, then the chief rabbi of Israel. It turns out that Abdul-Jabbar’s father, Ferdinand L. Alcindor, had a very close friend who had liberated one of the Nazi camps. Indeed, among the liberators of Buchenwald at the end of World War Two, there were many black US soldiers, which created an important memory for an eight-year-old Lau.

Alcindor’s wish to his son (who’s name was originally Lew Alcindor, but was changed when he converted to Islam), was that “his son visit Israel, and meet the little boy that was rescued from Buchenwald and who turned into a prominent rabbi.”

As Chief Rabbi Lau related after their first meeting in 1997: “The first blackface I saw in my life was in the broken gates of Buchenwald.” The chief rabbi added that during the 1991 Crown Heights riots in New York, he had urged for unity among the blacks and Jews. “Just as they united in a time of war, they should be able to do so during times of peace,” he said, adding, “It’s time to forget all the differences and hold our hands together.”

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Parshat Devarim opens by identifying, in great detail, the location where Moses spoke to the Jewish people during the last few days of his life, right before the nation crossed over into the Promised Land. Rashi comments that encoded in the wordy location is an allusion to all the places in the desert over the past 40 years where the Jews had behaved contentiously with God.

Their sins and complaints regarding the Golden Calf, the Spies, the Manna, Korach, and more, were alluded to in these opening words. As the Parsha unfolds, Moshe reminds the Jews how, through their various mistakes and rebellions, the nation learned how to conform to their role as God’s Chosen People.

That is, each and every event that occurred in the desert was a necessary chapter in their development and maturation, without which they never could have entered the Promised Land.

Most of us set goals for ourselves along the road of life. We think that our final destination is the goal, without realizing that the detours and stops that we make along the way, even the unpleasant ones, are vital in order for us to achieve our life’s purpose. One of the benefits of reading this Parsha is to remind ourselves that sometimes the stop along the way is the destination. Without it, we could not develop into the individuals that we are destined to be in order to realize our life’s purpose.

Kareem Abdul Jabbar, when he still named Lew Alcindor, with his Milwaukee Bucks teammate Oscar Robertson (right) | Photo: Milwaukee Bucks Archive

If you read about some of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s life, you get an appreciation for the fact that as a young man he came across as cocky and a bit of a jerk. When I saw him on Wilshire Blvd. back in the 70s, that scowl that he shot at me was probably representative of his general “angry young man” attitude and his disdain for others, especially those who adulated him.

But if you follow the trajectory of his life, especially the experience he had by revisiting the camp liberations during World War Two, you see the maturation and development of an angry young man, into a mature and sensitive adult. Abdul-Jabbar has, in recent years, become a thoughtful commentator and a person who seeks to build bridges within society. Just last week, he called out a number of angry young black men, some of them fellow professional athletes, for making anti-Semitic comments on social media.

He’s been called out for this as being a “Judas” or an “Uncle Tom,” but I think by this point in his life, he doesn’t really care. He knows who he is, and he knows where he comes from. Abdul-Jabbar said it very simply: “It’s so disheartening to see people from groups that have been violently marginalized do the same thing to others, without realizing that perpetuating this kind of bad logic is what perpetuates racism… The lesson never changes, so why is it so hard for some people to learn: No one is free until everyone is free. As Martin Luther King Jr. explained: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…’ So, let’s act like it. If we’re going to be outraged by injustice, let’s be outraged by injustice against anyone.”

We’re all on a journey, and whether we realize it or not, the stops along the way, both during a pandemic and during normal life, are all to help shape us into the better, improved versions of ourselves we are destined to become.

An angry Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has become, over the course of his life journey, an ambassador for peace, tolerance, and defending the other. There’s a lot to learn from this former angry young man.

As we approach Tisha B’Av, we have an opportunity to learn from a deeply traumatic stop along our national journey, that of the destruction of the two Temples.

Let’s use this time to learn from that historical station, that crucial stop along the journey back to Eretz Israel and the Redemption. Let’s also take time to reflect on our personal journeys, and how each stop that we’ve found ourselves at over the years, has helped to develop and improve us. If we do our job correctly, then we’ll play a vital role in bringing ourselves, and the rest of the world, to the ultimate destination. 

Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin is senior rabbi at Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation in Thornhill, ON. He is also president of the Rabbinical Council of America.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

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