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D'varim: Finding the Right Words; Moses and Bill Russell

08/09/2022 09:54:54 AM


Rabbi Ezray

This past week, basketball legend Bill Russell died at age 88. For those of you who don’t know who Bill Russell is, he was perhaps the best basketball player in history. His Boston Celtics won 11 championships. He won two national collegiate championships at University of San Francisco and an Olympic gold medal. He is in the Hall of Fame, both as a player and a coach, the first African American coach in the NBA. And while many remembered him for his championships, his enduring legacy is not as a player, but as a person who helped bring about change to our world. 

          Reflecting on Bill Russell brings us to this week’s Torah portion, the beginning of Moses’ final farewell to his people. Moses shares what he and the Israelites have experienced in the forty years since the Exodus and looks ahead to the future in the promised land. Reflecting on these two men and some of the parallels in their lives teaches important lessons about overcoming hardship, fighting injustice, finding the courage to do what is right, and living with love.

          Both men grew up amidst hatred and found the courage to confront that pain and demand change. Moses, who when he first met God said, “I am not a man of words,” at the end of his life is a great orator, urging the people to obey the Torah and reject idolatry. A piece of this growth came from the suffering he witnessed.  Seeing his people oppressed, he acts and intervenes. As you remember the story, a key moment is when he realizes he is endangered in Egypt and runs away. In the land of Midian, God calls upon him to return to Egypt, confront Pharoah and demand the Children of Israel be freed. We remember his hesitancy and reluctance.  But ultimately, he stands face to face with Pharoah, the most powerful man in the world, finding his voice. Finally freed, he immediately encounters new challenges requiring every ounce of skill and strength he possesses. Amidst constant rebellion and frustration, fear and discontent, Moses continues to lead the people. Forty years in the wilderness and he stands on the brink of the Promised Land delivering this final speech. This masterful orator is desperate to find the right words for the Israelites to internalize the messages they need to receive, for he is worried the people will quickly abandon their faith.

Like Moses, Bill Russell grew up in the face of hatred and learned how to respond. He grew up just across the bridge from us in West Oakland, where white city leaders forced the overwhelming majority of Black people to live in the 1940’s; he encountered the discrimination and prejudice that is a sad piece of our national history. He played professional basketball in Boston, a city many argue was defined by attitudes and acts of racial inequity. His home was burglarized and smeared with feces. People would yell racist taunts during games and throw things at him. He felt it with every fiber of his being. His experiences embodied what millions of black people suffered every day. He used that energy to fuel him.

          Like Moses, he stood up for what was right. It took courage, a certain attitude, and support from people close to him. Moses had his brother Aaron and one of the people Bill Russell had was his Jewish coach Red Auerbach. Both men are known for their furious will to win as well as growing up as members of persecuted minority groups. They shared a resolve to never to accept victimhood.  In 1964, Red Auerbach led a US State Department goodwill basketball tour behind the Iron Curtain that Bill Russell joined, which included a daylong visit to Auschwitz concentration camp. About the trip he wrote, “It had a strong impact on me too. I thought, ‘This is the utmost demonstration of men’s inhumanity to other men. This is a great evil… The place summoned thoughts about segregation in the United States. While that was different, it arose from the same ignorance and fear that triggers such cruelties.” Moses and Bill Russell knew about the evil of humanity, and they acted.

Bill Russell’s legacy will be how he fought against injustice, using his voice to bring awareness to America’s deep-seated racial problems. In 1967 he took part in the Cleveland Summit, a gathering of Black athletes addressing racism. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and spoke out about the treatment of Black people in America. In 1963 he oversaw the first integrated basketball camp in Jackson, Mississippi after the assassination of civil-rights leader Medgar Evers and made sure the camp went ahead in the face of death threats. When a restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky refused to serve Russell and his teammates before an exhibition game, Russell led a boycott. Here is how he explained what he did:  “One of the ways the American Negro has attempted to show he is a human being is to demonstrate our race to the people through entertainment, and thus become accepted. I am coming to the realization that we are accepted as entertainers, but that we are not accepted as people in some places. Negroes are in a fight for their rights—a fight for survival—in a changing world. I am with these Negroes.”

It wasn’t easy. Describing not being served in restaurants, Russell wrote, “Such injustices took a toll. I’ll never forget having to drive through the day and night to get some place, ignoring the cries of my still young children, because there was no place to stop to eat or rest, no hotel or restaurant that would accept our Blackness. None of my medals or championships could shield my children from White Supremacy. All I could do was try to instill in them the love and pride my parents instilled in me and hope it would be enough.” Just like Moses, amidst anger and frustration, he allowed love to define his essence.

One interesting aspect of the speeches that Moses gives in the book of Deuteronomy is that he did not shy away from reviewing the mistakes of the people. This portion is full of rebuke. He was deeply afraid the Israelites would revert to misbehavior and be influenced by idolatry. Many commentators feel his rebuke was trying to motivate a new generation not to repeat the mistakes of the past, weaved together with a heart full of love. His love for the people underlies every word of anger. In the very passage where he complains of the burden of leading such quarrelsome people, he begs God to bless them and multiply them.  He sees promise and encourages them to build on their success. At the end of the portion, he instructs the people to cross the Jordan under Joshua’s leadership and conquer the people of Canaan. He believes in the future. While I don’t know if we can draw an equivalent line to Bill Russell, his ability to continue fighting shows his belief in what could be. After retirement, he reached out and mentored young African American players, each who had their own stories of his quiet encouragement, or his direct challenges. He continued to teach, nurture and fight for justice. Two years ago, he wrote these words: “I’m 86 years old now and I figure I’ve got another fight to finish.” That is essentially what Moses spends the whole book of Deuteronomy doing.

Like Moses worried about the Israelites, Bill Russell feared we would not learn the lessons of racism. He writes: “Racism cannot just be shaken out of the fabric of society because, like dust from a rug, it dissipates into the air for a bit and then settles right back where it was growing thicker with time… We need to make our voices heard, through multiple organizations, using many different tactics. We need to demand that America gets a new rug. In many ways, I owe my happiness to the love my parents gave me. Their love gave me the confidence to simply be me: a proud Black man, fair, and I believe, dignified. Of course, as too many Black and Brown mothers will tell you, all the love in the world can’t keep a Black child from being murdered. More dust in the rug. Our children deserve better. All of them.”

Moses and Bill Russell deserve our respect and admiration. We need to study their lives and allow them to inspire us. Both were flawed and would not want to be put on pedestals. Both left us with the challenge to fight hatred and be better as a people and country. Both taught us to keep fighting even when we are tired, and to use every bit of passion and love we possess. Both found the words to set the stage for living with justice and dignity. May we follow their examples.

Tue, May 30 2023 10 Sivan 5783