When we moved from New York to Atlanta for my first rabbinical post, we were always happy when our parents came down to visit. It was a special event filled with love, and we enjoyed it immensely because their presence validated what we were doing with our lives. The approval of parents then and now was an important piece of maintaining our psychic health and happiness, especially when we were separated by long distances.
On the Map is a basketball story about the come-from-behind triumph of the Maccabi Tel Aviv team in the 1977 European Championship. But there is one vignette in the narrative that lingers in my mind.
Only a few days before the championship game, the captain of the team, Tal Brody, receives a call informing him that his father has had a heart attack and is in the ICU unit of a hospital in America. Tal decides to go immediately to his dad in spite of the fact that this means his lifelong dream to play, and perhaps win, the European basketball championship will vanish. As Tal says: “A father is a father,” and that desire to be with his dad at a time of crisis prevails.
The European basketball championship took place after a tumultuous time in the history of Israel. In 1972 the Munich massacre at the Olympic Games forever changed the nature of international sports. The 1973 Yom Kippur War dramatically diminished the sense of euphoria that existed after the Six Day War, and the 1976 hijacking of an Air France plane in Entebbe, Africa, left Israel with a sense of its own international fragility. In the midst of these events and domestic turmoil in Israel’s government, as well as the tensions of the Cold War, the distraction of sports was a welcome reprieve from the chaotic world situation.
The central figure in this renaissance of basketball was Tal Brody, an American who played college ball at the University of Illinois and was drafted into the NBA. Moshe Dayan saw him play at the Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv, and encouraged Tal to come to Israel and join the Maccabi team. It is a mark of the man that Tal passed on the fame and wealth of being on an NBA team to play with the country of his heritage. His presence on the team encouraged other American players to join Maccabi. Their mission was to win the European League Championship.
The journey of the team to win that accolade is fraught with challenges and obstacles, which manifest themselves as the team faces imposing adversaries such as Russia. It is a joy to watch the players coalesce and improve as the season progresses.
Tal Brody is the man of the hour, and it is an inspiration to see him make the correct Jewish decision when his father has a medical emergency. He focuses on honoring a parent, not winning a game, and this focus on family is an affirmation of his Jewish values.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons writes about the importance of this mitzvah: “It’s one of the Ten Commandments – right up there with belief in God and don’t murder. What’s so special about the mitzvah to honor parents?
Many people think that honoring parents is some kind of payback for all those years of changing diapers and paying for college.
In truth, this mitzvah of honoring parents does not depend on what your parents did for you, or even whether they were good parents. Rather, we honor parents simply because they gave us the gift of life.
By honoring those who brought us into existence, we learn not to take things for granted and develop an appreciation for the kindness of others.”
Rabbi Simmons mentions several ways we fulfill this commandment. We take care of them, especially when they are older. We take them to the doctor, we bring them food, we help them manage their financial affairs. We phone them often. We do not make them feel that they are a burden to us. In the end, the Torah tells us that the reward for honoring parents is long life so it is wise to fulfill this commandment diligently.
Tal Brody, by rushing off to the States to be with his ailing father at a time when he stands to gain immensely if he stays in Europe, reminds us that loyalty and service to parents is more important than transient fame or financial reward. Honoring parents trumps everything.