When I was a child, I was fortunate to spend much of my time in my grandparent’s apartment in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. George and Sylvia’s love and care for me were foundational to my Jewish identity and truly unsurpassed…and grandma’s famous grilled cheeses…renown! Even more savory was sitting in front of their new “color” TV.
Many days, I watched….grilled cheese in hand…as on the tube, a man appeared, lanky and unassuming, coming through a door, slipping off his work shoes and blazer as he settled into sneakers and a colorful cardigan.
PBS’s Channel 13, home of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was a warm and familiar world I entered regularly. In fact, it was one of the few television shows Grandma Sylvia even allowed at her house.
The Neighborhood was filled with people and puppets that many of us came to know and love. Each had a distinctive personality and unique ways in which they contributed to the community.
Perhaps we think nostalgically of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood as a relic of a simpler time, but in truth it first aired just a few months after the Cuban missile crisis. 1968 was far from a time of peace and harmony; it was a time when the world was seemingly on edge. Sound familiar? The notion of a worldwide neighborhood in which everyone belonged was hard to imagine. In some ways, I first learned about division at an early age from Mr. Rogers show. Do any of you remember when King Friday, the ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, attempted to build a wall around his kingdom to protect it from change?
While many years have passed since those days at Grandma and Grandpa’s, I was given an opportunity to briefly visit the Neighborhood this summer when Nicole and I went to see “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”. Glimpsing into his world, now as an adult, I was grateful and moved to reflect on the radical faith that Fred Rogers brought to his audience.
We were pleasantly reminded that the hip-to-be-square icon didn’t change all that much in the 35 years between the premiere of the show in 1968 and his death in 2003. He was an ordained minister – a man defined by his faith, who illuminated a singular message, as each show responded to the issues of the time. In his own words, the message is simple “Love is at the root of everything, all learning, all relationships, love, or the lack of it.”
In this context, I am reminded of the familiar story from Rabbinic literature, often referred to as the golden rule. The ancient fable reflects the critical mandate I first learned from Fred Rogers as a young kid.
A non-Jew, wishing to convert to Judaism nearly 2000 years ago, went to the home of Rabbi Hillel, one of our greatest Rabbinic sages. He said, “Teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot.” Hillel responded. “Simple! The Torah teaches: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Everything else is commentary. Now, if ‘you’re really interested, go and study.”
The visitor was so impressed with Hillel’s response that he took Hillel up on his instructions, and began to study and ultimately became one of the tribe! Mr. Rogers translated that Torah mandate in every episode for his viewers. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
The stories in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe portrayed common children’s concerns and explored the range of emotions that we all experience. Even the puppets had identifiable personalities, and they, like all of us, demonstrated the capacity for self-reflection and growth. They illustrated how people can work together and support one another, even in the face of adversity, anger and fear.
On this Rosh Hashanah, I am mindful, now more than ever, that we come together tonight in synagogue communities around the globe to commemorate the creation of the human race, to which we all belong. We observe by focusing on soul examination and heshbon hanefesh, personal inventory.
And we do so in the hopes that some space for a clear-head and heart might offer us the opportunity to identify our individual [and collective] wounds. From there, we can begin to do the work of healing those wounds, but we cannot heal what we cannot see.
These prolific words of our Leviticus text, “V’ahavta l’rayecha kamochah,” are referred to time and again throughout all Judeo-Christian traditions. It literally translates as “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Over the ages, the Hillel fable, this text and others like it, have been interpreted as a commandment to be kind to others, selfless even.
But if we look more deeply at the text, the message assumes that we love ourselves. So what is this message we may have never considered? Perhaps a radical idea for us to embrace – We must first love ourselves in order to love our neighbor.
But what do we even mean when we speak of love? Look it up in the dictionary and the varied “meanings” are vague and all directly attached to the feeling toward an object or a person. The implication is that love is external, we bestow it on those outside of ourselves.
It is also a word that we use constantly and often in mundane contexts. How many of us “love” ice cream, tennis, our cars, that particular movie or book? For me, love cannot be experienced in the mind. Real love is an intention of the heart, truly of the soul and so for me, to love means to have regard for one’s happiness and well-being, and this includes ourselves.
Mr. Rogers taught: “When we love a person, we accept him or her exactly as is: the lovely with the unlovely, the strong with the fearful, the true mixed in with the facade, and of course, the only way we can do it is by accepting ourselves that way.”
Acceptance, compassion, forgiveness, allowing myself humanness and error, giving to myself generously what I need and enjoy just because I am worthy and desire it and returning again and again to kindness toward myself. All these parallel exactly what we then are able to give to others. “V’ahavta l’rayecha kamochah, Love your neighbor as yourself”… it is an internal job. This may seem like an impossible task in a culture so brutally focused on achievement and plagued by busy-ness.
In addition, there are powerful external forces we experience daily that create a labyrinth of potential obstacles in our culture: fear and divisiveness, technologically evolved ways of connecting, a more frenetic pace of life – to name a few. Our Jewish calendar affords us a real gift to have the space for a little distance to work on our own internal life. So, how do we get started?
Most of us define ourselves by the narrative we construct throughout our lives, weaving together experiences, relationships, skills, and labels in a way that makes us, make sense. I’m a good friend, I’m athletic, a procrastinator, I’m good with family, bad in relationships. Positive and negative and anywhere in between, all are part of my story! Even our traditional image of the annual we speak of at this time of year, can perpetuate the idea that the story is our essence. The “Book Of Life” many come to experience as one of judgement and decree.
While we may find power and meaning in this image, I think for most of us, it does not resonate entirely when we consider how to apply it on the ground in our day to day lives. Nor likely does a God on high who serves as the arbiter of an annual performance review. But the story is not our essence, the us that was created, B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, as our tradition teaches.
So tonight, I offer a re-frame: What if that personal story of “self” fills the pages of the Book of Life during these High Holy Days, offering us a tool to study in order to learn how to love ourselves?
Our book has birthdays and setbacks, laughter and adventures, births and deaths, joy and pain, and it holds the moments we are at our best and those we’d like to forget.
The High Holy Days offer space and a request that we spend some time with the book of our life. That we look at our relationships and mistakes and our proudest achievements, our pain and fear and dreams yet unfulfilled.
As we do, the stories can serve as a window through which we can see the themes and patterns, uncover the wounds that need healing and then learn and grow from this “autobiography.”
Growth and healing come from action. All the meditating, therapy, yoga, “self-help” introspection in the world does not serve us until we integrate it into change, how we relate to ourselves and as a result, others.
I cannot tell you what your actions are but I can share with you ways that I cultivate self-love, compassion and kindness toward myself. Perhaps you will find a suggestion to try or perhaps nothing will resonate… but my hope is that it gives you a place to start.
I allow myself to close down the computer, while there are still a number of things to do, because I know that I am out of energy. I work, regularly, to let go of the negative voices that say “I’m not good enough or worthy” by actively responding to them with affirmations of kindness. I refocus from judgement of a final product to valuing the effort behind the task. I strive to practice true humility, which is to both own my strengths and weaknesses, my gifts and flaws with equity, as pieces of my whole self. I prioritize exercise, not to control my physical outcomes, but to feel healthy and strong in my body. I go to the movies by myself, at times. And I practice saying thank you after receiving a complement, without qualifications of denials.
This work is simple, so simple, but not at all easy and it will never be perfect, nor is there a graduation. Cultivating love in ourselves and then the world is the same as strengthening a muscle. We need to exercise it regularly. Sometimes we will consistently get to the love gym, and some days we won’t make it and all of it is ok – where we need to be. But we stay the course and I truly promise you, change happens. When we slow down, we reprioritize, the noise in our heads gets quieter and priorities shift. Doesn’t that sound like a much more likely place to be able to Love our Neighbor?
At this moment in our world, we all know, there are so many provocative topics that I could have taken on this evening. I could have united us in the fear and anger we feel around the state of our country or world. I could have made a much more direct call to social or political action. With all the noise that you and I encounter all day, every day – bringing all of that into this sacred space, as we first enter into this New Year, is contrary to everything offered up tonight. It is the quieting of that noise that I pray will allow us to do this work, and act accordingly. Rather, in this new year of 5779, my call to action is to…
Love your neighbor. Love that other person, because you struggle just like her. You love your family just like her. You make mistakes just like her.
Love your neighbor. Love that other person because you laugh just like him. You worry about your children just like him. You hurt just like him.
Love your neighbor: because like you, they need the basic stuff of nature to live – food, water, shelter and human connection.
Love that other person because, in the words of our Torah, you were both created in the image of God.
Every year we talk about the call of the Shofar as a wake up, that it’s role is to call us to action and activate us out of complacency. This year, I invite you to utilize those blasts to awaken to yourself, own all your parts out loud and celebrate your gifts, find honesty and then compassion for your flaws. It’s tough to be human, and some inward kindness can help us radiate it outward to others.
You don’t need a colorful cardigan or seminary ordination to become shofarot. Blast out the healing and light that comes to you from this holy work, and is so much needed in our world today. In 5779, may we start with ourselves. AMEN.
 BT Tractate Shabbos 31a
 Leviticus 19:18.