Yesterday I took about thirty minutes or so to watch the long and emotional acceptance speech delivered by Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma Thunder (basketball team), on the occasion of his receiving this year’s National Basket Association Most Valuable Player Award. The young man is 25, a believer in Yeshua, an extraordinary athlete and an exemplary human being. His speech is remarkable for its consistent humility. In a day when world class athletes are paid millions of dollars a year, and many are so manifestly full of themselves, Durant stands above like an Everest, like Mariano Rivera in the world of baseball. Find a video of his speech here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvKDw-EkfYg.
What struck me about the speech was that it was from beginning to end, and in personal detail, all about humility and gratitude. It was stunning, like a diamond standing out against a background of the black velvet of today’s rampant self-congratulation. Especially notable is his thanks to his mother which comes at the end of his speech. There was not a dry eye in the place as he told about her character as a single mother of twenty-one with two children, who went to bed hungry so they could eat, and who pushed Kevin to be great, which is what he now is, keeping her children safe and good in a very turbulent and unsettled time. He ends his tribute to her by saying, tearfully, “You are the MVP.” She received a standing ovation. I wept. So did everyone else.
This reminds me of today’s word of wisdom from the “Truths our Fathers Told Us.” During these weeks between Pesach/Passover and Shavuot/Pentecost, in keeping with Jewish tradition we are reading each week a succeeding chapter of the brief ethical tractate from the Mishna called Pirkei Avot. Since this is the fourth week of our waiting for Shavuot, today we dip into the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avot where find this:
Rabbi Eliezer the son of Shamua would say: The dignity of your student should be as precious to you as your own; the dignity of your colleague, as your awe of your master; and your awe of your master as your awe of Heaven.
Although the word is not mentioned here, this teaching is all about humility, true humility, which is evident not so much in what we think of ourselves, as in how we act toward others. The word translated “dignity” here is כבוד (kavod), and can also be translated “honor.” This is what we see in Kevin Durant, and what Rabbi Eliezer the son of Shamua saw so long ago–that true greatness and holiness, true humility as well, is shown in how we honor others.
You will see Kevin Durant thanking and honoring everyone in his life and on his team, by name, specifying why he is grateful for them. He thanks the older, veteran members of his team, and those who are just joining and just coming along. It is beautiful. The crowd and his teammates and other athletic big shots at the event are awed and stilled by it. It is beautiful to behold.
Let’s learn from his actions the lesson taught by Eliezer the son of Shamua so long ago. The lesson of greatness, humility and honor, evident in how we honor others. Then perhaps our lives too will be beautiful to behold.