Piny Hackenbroch
Senior Rabbi Woodside Park Synagogue, London

Should I be Like Mike?

Sports has always been an oasis, a form of escapism from the monotony of life for society. The French academic Marc Perelman abhors this for the very same reason that Karl Marx disliked religion – that it is akin to an “opium of the people”.  The cancellation of most of the sporting calendar due to Covid may explain, in part, the hype surrounding the Last Dance, the documentary of Michael Jordan and the Bulls 1990s Dynasty. Rare footage, unseen since it was filmed over two decades ago forms the basis of this gripping documentary.

But this is not the first nor will it be the last documentary concerning a sporting icon. What was it that made it such compelling viewing?

I must make a confession – basketball has never been my thing -every other sport yes, but basketball was the one sport that I had never really followed or taken an interest in. However, like so many, it was hard not to fall head over heels in love with basketball when you watched Michael Jordan and the Chicago bulls.

Jordan’s dominance in the 1990s winning almost everything possible both as an individual and as part of the Bulls team led him to being crowned as the undisputed greatest basketball player of all time. Arguably no athlete in our lifetime made more people want to move the way he did. There was a sense that we were with him defying gravity. That was us at the top of the key, holding our wrists high as the clock filled up with zeroes; that was us flying at the rim from the free throw line. Be like Mike! It was a resonant slogan, not because anyone particularly wanted to imitate Michael Jordan on a personal level but because, when we watched him play, we were him.

There are many great winners and success stories in every sport and discipline yet during the course of the documentary we were reminded time and again that there was one aspect of Michael Jordan’s winning formula game that he unenviably and unquestionably owned.

Jordan’s philosophy was quite simply to win at any cost. He defied everything from club doctors to alleged food poisoning to get out on the court and win. He was famous for inventing personal vendettas against the opposition as form of motivation. His uber competitiveness led him to bullying teammates and abusing staff.

In defending his over aggressive style in the documentary, he remained unrepentant and declared “Winning has a price, and leadership has a price, so I pulled people along when they did not want to be pulled…. once you joined the team, you lived at a certain standard that I played the game. And I was not going to take anything less.”

The winning at all costs is a philosophy not unique to the world of sports, Michael Jordan though was certainly the master. It has traversed the psyche of the corporate world. Steve Jobs was known to be exceptionally persuasive both to those he worked with and those he pitched to for business, able to charm people he hated just as easily as he could be insulting to people, he liked.

The question we need to consider is whether “winning at all costs” is a philosophy we should all adopt in our pursuit of success and happiness.

It is interesting that our ancient wisdom seems to behove us to tread a different path. The mission statement for every Jew is made clear from the very cradle of Judaism. Abraham, the founder of monotheism, on discovering G-d, was immediately given a clarion call as to the mission for himself and for his descendants that they would all follow. The command of “Lech Lecha” was a call to journey but where to?  G-d tells Abraham the journey of a Jew is one of self-discovery to go to none other than yourself. To bring out our latent potential. The measure of success and winning in life for us as Jews,  does not require us to  totally obliterate our competitors,  nor does it require us to bully and use psychological manipulation with those on our team or that we work with to achieve our ambitions for success. We face a far more ambitious and challenging and rigorous test and that is the struggle constantly to be the very best version of ourselves. That is the mark of us being winners and successful.

No one achieved more in their lifetime than Moshe the greatest of leaders, and yet at the end of his life G-d offers what seems a rather strange compliment to Moshe. He praises Moshe for being the conduit for the Jewish people receiving the Torah, and yet in the same breath we are reminded by G-d that Moshe’s greatest accolade was the smashing of  the tablets of stone in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf. This was a low point in Jewish history at the very time Moshe is accepting the Torah and the Jewish people are affirming their loyalty and faith to G-d they betray that trust by worshipping the golden calf. The incident of the smashing the tablets is a source of embarrassment for Moshe as leader of the Jewish people. What could possibly be the message and lesson for us to glean from this episode?

Moshe teaches us the importance of self-sacrifice for the greater good. As he stood at the top of Mount Sinai, building up to the pinnacle of his career as leader, Moshe, from a selfish perspective, had every right to bring the tablets to the Jewish people and avoid the golden calf incident raining on his parade. However, he was determined that the delivery of the tablets was not about his own personal success, but about serving the needs of the Jewish people.  He had an acute understanding of his role and his personal values. For him, it was not about doing what wins us plaudits and accolades, but rather about fulfilling his potential – by acting in the way which God demands of him at that moment

If we followed Moshe’s example, it may be of benefit to us and sometimes it may appear as being to our detriment. Yet, our greatest success is being true to ourselves by carrying out the will of G-d. By looking in the mirror and asking ourselves who we are and what is expected of us, we can step up to the mark of true greatness – integrity, authenticity, and G-d-centred living. It may mean that sometimes we have to put our personal concerns and agendas to one side, but as Moshe displayed and Avraham saw long before him, the journey of our people in the Bible is a journey to self-discovery. The adventure of life is a journey to find our true selves and that is the ultimate challenge. To embark on this journey is a mark of success in life. It is not about winning at all costs but to improve and learn from every experience.

So ultimately, on reflection, I have come to the realisation that we should forget “being like Mike” – instead, I just want to be like the true me or as Shakespeare put so aptly put it

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

About the Author
Rabbi Hackenbroch is Senior Rabbi of Woodside Park Synagogue, London, UK, as well as a commercial mediator, Holocaust Educator and sought after speaker
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