Ode to Mister Rogers – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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”[4]… 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.

[1] http://www.mbird.com/2018/03/mr-rogers-on-the-root-of-everything/

[2] BT Tractate Shabbos 31a

[3] http://www.fredrogerscenter.org/about-us/about-fred/quotes/.

[4] Leviticus 19:18.


Moral Unorthodoxy – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777 – Rabbi Jason Nevarez

On a brisk day this past Spring, I had the privilege of taking my children, Ethan and Sophie to Ellis Island –the very place their grandfather traversed in 1908, from the town of Vilna, Lithuania. As we took the ferry from Battery Park, we sailed right around the Statue of Liberty. They were in awe of her sheer size, understanding that it was this magnificent monument that greeted new immigrants and refugees, welcoming them to their new home in NY and beyond.

ellis-island-immigration-museum-2_cLady Liberty’s image stayed with us as we disembarked at Ellis Island and proceeded with the self-guided audio tour. They both immersed themselves in the experience — carefully examining every room we entered, every photo we saw. Sophie focused on the faces of the children and the short narratives that accompanied their photos. She couldn’t wrap her head around the fact that her great grandpa George could ever have endured the treacherous journey. How could she ever imagine living a life filled with such harshness, suffering, and an arduous journey to a completely unknown new land.

This short journey to Ellis Island resonated deeply, the faces remaining with all of us after our departure. Soon after we were back home, another image, that of three-year old Aylan Kurdi, came searing into my mind. Aylan, whose parents valiantly tried to flee Syria to give him a life, literally and figuratively, never made it to a new land. Rather, he washed up on a Turkish shore in his tiny red t-shirt and blue shorts. He drowned, along with his five-year old brother and mother when his desperate father could no longer keep their heads above water, having been battered by unrelenting waves that their rubber raft simply could not sustain.aylan-kurdi

Aylan, of course is just one singular member of the vast global refugee population that has flooded our media for the last several years. But, this small boy tore into my consciousness, a boy who, at three years old, spent his entire life trapped in a world of horrific violence and utter despair. This boy who tugged on my (and many) heartstrings, will never get the chance to kick a soccer ball. He will never go to school, wrestle with a difficult math problem, cut class, go on a hike, or learn to hate broccoli. As I recalled his image, I wanted nothing more than to undo the unbearable pain that had been brought to his family, his community and later, to the world at large.

And all of a sudden, it became clear to me – the world’s shofar had sounded for me and others with Aylan. What all the numbers, statistics, media sensationalizing couldn’t do – the image of Aylan did in an instant.

Aylan’s story moved me so much that I joined 15 other rabbis in August on a fact-finding mission to Berlin, a hotbed in the midst of the current refugee crisis. One of my first experiences there was a visit to a remnant of the Berlin wall, where photographer Kai Wiesenhofer created an exhibit called, “War on Wall”, a profound exhibition of faces and war-on-wallstories of injured refugees plastered on a remaining section of the Wall. In his introduction, he states: “It is a paradox of war that the image of a single person makes the biggest impression upon us; the one whose face we can see, the one whose name and fate we can actually recall. The bigger the number of victims, the less we are touched emotionally. Instead of increasing our consternation, large numbers somehow numb the reality of it. Numbers are abstract- people are not.”

Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon calls this paradigm “psychophysical numbing” – if I can’t do everything, I’ll do nothing. Almost daily, newsfeeds and subsequent rhetoric in support or opposition of refugees became commonplace – I, too, became numb – “that’s their issue”, I recall, thinking to myself several times.

And then one day, a small boy who washed up on the shores of Eastern Europe, broke through the numbness.

The reality IS that most of us walk through this world focused on just trying to get through the day while we seek to quiet the issues that stir intense feelings within us. While we may stop for a moment to acknowledge the pain, the tragedy, or the need, many of us (including myself), shake our heads and quietly keep on walking.

For a moment, Aylan awakened us, surely me, too late to the horrors of a crisis fueled by our own indifference.

As a society, we’ve sh-childrenbeen here before. We woke up to the insanity of this country’s gun culture four years ago after parents and families had to bury 26 innocent young souls
gunned down in their classrooms just 25 miles from where we gather this evening. It was too awful, too vivid for us to walk away at that very moment. But soon after, our Facebook feeds quieted, we shook our heads, brushed away tears, and kept on quietly walking. We did the same after Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, Fort Hood, Charleston and Orlando.

We shake our heads, angered, concerned….and quietly keep on walking.

We acknowledged the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in our country when Trayvon was eric-garnerkilled, and our laws didn’t change.  Our social media exploded again when Eric Garner died in a strangle-hold, or Freddie Gray, who was shoved into a police van with such blunt force that he suffered spinal cord injury and ultimately death. And most recently, the events in Charlotte last week continue to feed this seemingly endless cycle, leading to further loss of innocent civilian and police lives, further inciting violence and disdain for those in blue. For a moment, we become outraged, vocal, sorrowful and motivated and soon after, we keep on walking….

Paradoxically, as a Jewish community, we stand proudly, for years, fighting for the rights of the African-American community– from the days of modern theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walking with Dr. King in Selma, exclaiming, “I felt like my feet were praying.” Yet, the latest iteration of organizational justice for the African-American community, the Black Lives Matter movement, blindsided the Jewish community with the recent unveiling of its social and political policy agenda. It portrays a strategy well beyond police brutality, and accuses Israel of genocide and apartheid, seeking to hijack important work that addresses deeply rooted societal challenges, with a platform that brings about contempt and bigotry toward Jews. Few leaders spoke up, and many of us just kept on walking….

Even locally, in our own backyard we see homeless on the streets of NYC or Mt. Kisco, and immigrants who occupy local street corners in find work so they can sustain their families.
immigrants-on-street-cornerWe may take notice for a moment, but do we truly acknowledge that they, too, are our neighbors? Chances are, we keep on walking….

It is a harsh and never-ending cycle. Truly the world would be so much simpler if all we continued to worry about was soccer or baseball, dine in or take-out, iPhone 7 or 7 Plus. And yet here comes Aylan’s image in my mind, again and again – shattering complacency, and pushing me (and perhaps some of US) to remember how fragile this journey we call life, truly is; to stop walking, turn around and face one another with an outstretched hand.

The blasts of the shofar come every year to not only wake us up (which I have charged you with in the past), but for me this year, the sacred voice of the shofar calls us to STOP walking away, take notice, and act.

In the book of Deuteronomtzedek-tzedek-tirdofy, we are commanded: “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof – justice, justice, shall you pursue.” (Deut. 16:20). Our mandate for being a free people is the ongoing pursuit for justice – fighting for the rights and ensuring the dignity of the other. Judaism takes the pursuit of justice in earnest, emphasizing the word tzedek, justice, in Torah, two times, one right after the other.

But could the sages of our Torah have possibly understood the enormity of this task in 2016? Think of how many news alerts we receive in the course of one day. Could they have ever fathomed the spiritual confusion that comes when we carry tiny screens with us everywhere, notifying us in real time to every act of human cruelty, every tragic story, violent protest, – every possible political poll? Never before have we had access to so much input. How could we be expected to even hold it all, let alone act?

Joan Kantor, beloved congregant, friend, and teacher in our Religious School, recently penned a Letter to the Editor in the NY Times, responding to an op-ed entitled: Scrutinizing Our Frenzy. She notes, “Once again, I have to make room in my busy schedule to respond to your article about being busy. Don’t you people understand that I don’t have time for this? Do you really want me to admit that my crammed, stressful to-do list days are an excuse not to face who I am on the inside? I have so much going on, so many places to run to, so much to worry about. Can’t you just leave me alone and let me “not be”?”

Joan has it right. Today, there is no question that we have reached the saturation point. No surprise, then, the growing backlash to the world’s refugees crisis or our country’s race relations. Or the divisiveness that has radiated, on these issues and more, fed by our current political cycle. If we can’t make space and time to honestly look at ourselves and make self-care a priority, how can we move from a state of psychophysical numbness to one of compassion, empathy, and action?

Over these Days of Awe, we are charged to look within and to take inventory – looking deep to acknowledge both the pain and the progress.

In this inventory of our culture, I do see the growth: our unprecedented ability to treat illnesses; outstanding advances in science, medicine and technology, the newly opened forum to address gender questions, the seemingly endless charitable organizations that work hard to make an impact every day, creative solutions to end water crises in Israel that are shared with developing nations….and let us not forget WAZE! Thanks to Israel’s Start-Up Nation!

As I also take stock of the pain and the hardening of the heart: millions dead, victims of war, hatred, religious extremism and terror, and better technology to weaponize hatred and kill more efficiently and effectively – I see a significant imbalance.

What a dynamic tension: in the past century, we have learned how to think deep: I have witnessed children in our own congregation printing in 3D, and watched some of the greatest medical advances to date. Robots are communicating and teaching each other; whole cities have moved off of electrical grids and are now powered by wind and air; online stores are providing information about our genes that will make it accessible to learn more about our health.

But somehow, we have not yet figured out how to feel deep, to build stronger bridges of humanity. We have yet to overturn the U.S. legacy of racism and temper this world’s attraction towards anti-Israel, anti-Jewish vitriol. We lack the sechel, the common sense and political capital in figuring out how to protect children in our classrooms and malls and theaters from disturbed young individuals armed with weapons of war or how to provide our own citizens equal opportunity of access to all that our country has to offer.

We can send rovers to Mars, build self-driving cars, but we can’t muster the collective will to care for the world’s most vulnerable: refugee children, leaving them no choice but to venture into a raging sea on broken inflatable rafts?

We tout ourselves as the most powerful generation ever to inherit this earth, yet we still convince ourselves of our personal powerlessness. Friends – this is a “moral crisis”.

SO…what can we do to stop, take notice and act? How do we harness our creative genius and frame it in the moral choice to stop walking and turn to face our fellow human?

A critical first step is to let our empathy lead us to moral action. Our capacity to see all moral-actionhuman beings as reflections of ourselves, not as “other” will make a difference to the person at the other end of a gun barrel, or those holding on for dear life to a raft that has no business crossing the rough sea. Or to the parents who fear that their children won’t make it home from school; and reduce the fear that emanates, on either end, between a police officer and a person of color. Empathy is what allows the divine to dwell between two people – for love to overcome hate, peace to overcome violence.

In 1967 at an interfaith conference in Washington, DC protesting the War in Vietnam, Rabbi Heschel told a story about his first encounter, at the age of seven, with the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, which we will read tomorrow morning. He recalls sitting in class, reading the story from the Book of Genesis. When the moment comes that Abraham holds the knife over his son’s throat, Heschel begins to cry. By the time the angel cries out: Abraham, Abraham, lay not your hand on the child! he is sobbing uncontrollably, overcome with terror. ‘Why are you crying?’ the Rabbi asks him. ‘You know that Isaac was not killed!’ ‘But rabbi,’ he says, ‘supposing the angel had come a second too late?’ The Rabbi comforts him, explaining that an angel cannot come late. “My friends,” Heschel notes decades later, “an angel cannot be late. But we, made of flesh and blood, we may come too late.”

While we may not be able to bring an end to war, oppression, and hatred on our own (I am well aware), the reverberations of the shofar blast mandate us to actively seek out and do our part. We can change the fate of the world and its people by choosing not to come too late.

That frenzy referred to in the NY times Op Ed is the focus on all we think we need to do and be. It precludes us from seeing beyond ourselves and it burns us out physically, spiritually so much so that we may render ourselves helpless. Yet we can turn our best intentions into meaningful, sacred deeds if we choose to stop, take a breath and look up. Here are a few concrete actions steps to support our mandate in 5777:

  1. Use the internet and social media to learn what people are feeling, and get caught up on the issues that are important to the community that you want to support. Use your voice, skills, connections and gifts to educate others.
  2. Ask yourself: am I bringing moral conversations home and making space for my loved ones, my children to think deeply and take steps with causes I, or we, are passionate about? Am I deliberately looking up to see where my part is needed?
  3. There are many tangible ways that you can make a difference right here in your spiritual home through participating in our social justice initiatives. Any one of our leadership can help guide you to the many opportunities here at TST.

Chief Rabbi of Palestine under the British Mandate, Rav Kook’s timeless message is key here. He says: “Purely righteous people do not complain about evil; they add justice. They do not complain about heresy; they add faith.” (Rav Kook, Arpelei Tohar, p. 39)

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue! Pursuing justice still affords us time for work, our families, summer camp, vacations, theatre, and our sporting games. And as I already mentioned, there are people in our own community, perhaps even our own homes, who desperately need us to pay attention, with our love, time and resources. I believe there is room in our hearts to hold all of this.

Commit to not quietly walking away today….or tomorrow. A sweet boy in a red t-shirt and blue shorts stopped me in my tracks. Together, let’s turn our best intentions, our concern and sometimes anger, now into moral action.

I close tonight by offering a prayer, which I hope will motivate us towards next steps in this New Year of 5777 and beyond:

Mi Shebeirach Avoteinu v’Imoteinu

God of our Fathers and Mothers, Source of Creation

This year, help us to STOP walking away.

Know that while we come together during these holy days to be in community with one another, our liturgy, inspired by You, calls us to turn our moral crisis into moral action.

Help us identify our wealth of skills, knowledge, influence and resources, and turn them into deeds that support the human condition and human dignity.

Help us to motivate ourselves, and one another, so that we can infuse this world with much-needed justice, light, empathy and healing to bring about wholeness in humanity.

Amen. Shana Tova.