This morning, I want to tell you a story. It’s actually a story about THE story, the ultimate story in Jewish history. The story which, owing to a convergence of events on today’s calendar, is also THE portion of Jewish scripture that is being read TODAY in temples and synagogues all around the world.
You all know the story, I think. The Israelites fleeing Egypt are now trapped between the sea in front of them and the Egyptian army coming up fast from behind. God instructs Moses to hold out his hand over the waters, the sea miraculously parts, and the jubilant Israelites cross to freedom on the dry river bed.
Moses, the man who didn’t even want this job because, as he told God, he was “slow of speech,” now is inspired to sing of the peoples’ redemption in a magnificent, extended and richly detailed poem of praise to God known as the “Song of the Sea.”
Or so we are told.
But following this long poem attributed to Moses, the book of Exodus gives us this:
“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them:
Sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously. Horse and driver have God hurled into the sea.” (Ex. 15:20-21)
Without waiting for orders or encouragement, Miriam and the women take it upon themselves to dance right into the middle of the sea-bed – in full faith and trust in God that they will be redeemed.
As it happens, this short two-line song may well be the original – or at least the most ancient – telling of the redemption of the Israelite nation. It may just be that this simple, short and beautiful first description of what the women said and did was later overshadowed by the extended and more famous poem attributed to Moses – who, after all, is the hero of the Exodus story as it has been handed down to us.
Some scholars even believe that the entire “song of the sea” should actually be attributed to Miriam. After all, in the ancient world, it was the role of the women to compose and perform songs of triumph to greet victorious troops as they returned from battle. One ancient manuscript actually calls this “The Song of Miriam.” But in the end, Moses is given the credit.
We are fortunate that the remnants of the original story remain in the final redaction of THE story. Because they teach us how powerful these women were when their faith in God was strong, and their trust in one another was, perhaps, even stronger. Miriam could not have pulled this off alone. It took all the women, singing and dancing across the dry river bed to freedom, who made such an impact that their simple act of faith remains with us more than three-thousand years later.
What happened to Miriam’s song and the story of the women are part and parcel of the patriarchal narrative of life – not just the life of the Ancient Near East but the life we live today. The movement that we call the Women’s March began in 2017 as a message to the world that the women of America would not step back. We would not see our accomplishments neglected or belittled. We would not politely wait our turn to step up into positions of leadership and power – any more than the Israelite women waited for somebody else to tell them to march forward.
The speed at which this is now happening at all levels of public life has been astonishing. It literally takes my breath away. I found my place in the feminist movement back in the 70’s, raised by a father who taught me I could do anything and be anything I wanted to be – and inspired by his mother, my Grandmom Freda, who took no nonsense from anyone, and by her mother, my Bubbie Rose, who arrived at these shores from Poland, all alone, at the age of 16, with nothing but a letter of introduction and enough talent in the kitchen and the sewing room to earn passage for the rest of her family.
The young women I am fortunate enough to teach and to pastor take for granted the broad horizons open to them. Which is exactly what my generation of feminists fought for.
The wonderful Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Connie Schultz (who’s married to some politician in Ohio) wrote this week of what she learned watching her own mother’s regret that she had lived by the limitations that others had put on her. Connie wrote:
“We women have always had our ambition – and by ambition, I mean wanting to do anything that runs contrary to the relentless and time-honored tradition of keeping us in the shadow of our own lives.”
“Keeping us in the shadow of our own lives.” I love that phrase. I think it captures perfectly our struggle against those patriarchal traditions. The women of my and Connie’s generation had a long learning curve about stepping out of the shadows of our own lives. We had to learn, as Connie wrote, that our restlessness is an asset and a strength – and not, as we may have been taught, a sign of impolite selfishness.
And we are overjoyed to see how easily and gracefully the women who are our daughters’ ages – and even our granddaughters’ ages – have followed their (your) restlessness, stepping into the light and, like Miriam and the women, singing and dancing their (your) way to the front.
I was so lucky and blessed to be raised by inspiring and empowering women, who did not wait for someone else to give them permission to live their lives. That gift led me to what are still considered “non-traditional” careers for women: broadcast journalism, sports journalism, sports marketing. And now my true calling as a rabbi – a teacher, a preacher and a pastor for the past twenty years.
We women rabbis are still very much in the minority, even in Reform Judaism, which is the most inclusive and progressive stream of Judaism. But we are making our mark in congregations large and small, where we are a living embodiment of the joy of stepping out of the shadows of our own lives — and of other peoples’ pre-conceived notions of who and what a rabbi is supposed to be.
The women gathered here today – and in towns and cities across the country – come from all different ethnicities, faith traditions, and families of origin. But we march together because, like Miriam and the women, we understand we are stronger together. We are bolder together. And God knows, we are louder together. To those who would try to weaken us by driving wedges between us – I say now, you will not win. We see what you’re trying to do. We know your game plan. And we always will be three moves ahead of you.
We have a Hebrew phrase that we use at times such as these – times such as Miriam and the women faced – when we have rid ourselves of servitude but face unknown challenges in the path ahead. We say:
Chazak! Chazak! V’nitchazek!
Be Strong! Be Strong! And we will be encouraged.
The first part is in the singular: You be strong! And you! And you!
The second part is in the plural. Every time you or you or you shows how wonderful you are, you inspire the rest of us to stand strong together.
©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), commentary to Parashat B’shalach, Exodus 15:1-21), p. 387-88.
It started out as a simple act of kindness.
It was a scorching hot day in the neighborhood, and Mr. Rogers was trying to keep himself cool by dipping his feet in the cold water of a kiddie pool. So when the neighborhood’s friendly policeman, Officer Clemmons, stopped by, Mr. Rogers naturally invited him to roll up his trousers and do the same – and so he did.
We might not think much of it now. But this was 1969. And Officer Clemmons was black.
Of all the public accommodations that had been at the center of racism and protest – from water fountains to lunch counters to public schools – swimming pools were among the last holdouts of segregation. Since the 1920s, when public pools became gender integrated, they became racially segregated – because white swimmers objected to the specter of black men swimming with white women. There was even a riot at Pittsburgh’s Highland Park Pool – the only city pool where men and women, and boys and girls, swam together – in which white swimmers attacked blacks with clubs and rocks, to keep them from entering the pool.
In the period after World War Two, when public officials formally integrated public swimming pools, many southern cities simply shut theirs down. And in the north, whites fled for the suburbs, where they could maintain de-facto segregation. Or they joined private clubs, where only whites were admitted as members.
In 1969, the long hot summer that followed the race riots after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King a year before, racially charged emotions were high again. And Fred Rogers, as he always did, showed the way by sharing his little pool with Francois Clemmons. Because that, he taught by example, is simply what neighbors do. At a time of intense anger and tension in our country, Mr. Rogers fulfilled the pledge he had once given:
“The world needs a sense of worth,” he said. “And it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile.”
With all the prayers and the petitions and the verses of Torah we share on the High Holy Days, Mr. Rogers’ simple message conveys the essence of what we hope to take away from the Days of Awe: Each of us – every human being – is worthy, regardless of race or color or gender or background or economic status. Everyone is worthy of being our neighbor.
Here’s the way Mister Rogers put it, in one of the songs he often sang on his television show:
It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair–
But it’s you I like.
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you–
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.
Today, we live in a world where bigots and bullies feel emboldened and empowered to attack – both physically and emotionally — people who do not look like them, or who do not pray like them, or who do not speak like them, or who do not otherwise conform to their narrow vision of belonging in their neighborhood, which they define with a single racial, or religious, or gender identity.
As barriers rise, bridges fall. And a lot – a lot – of people suffer. And, as Mister Rogers knew full well, a lot of the victims are children.
In Oklahoma last month, as families were preparing for back-to-school time, a transgender 7th grader named Maddie was forced to move to a new school district for the second time, after parents of other students threatened her on social media
They called her “it,” and “maggot.” “If he wants to be female, make him a female,” one parent wrote, “a good sharp knife will do the job really quick.”
We are not spared here in Altoona, where we are dealing with the devastating aftermath of the suicide of another 7th grader, after what his father’s lawsuit against the school system calls “a particularly brutal day of bullying.” We may live in a very white neighborhood – but there are differences among us that are more than skin deep. So don’t for a moment think the gay kids, or the trans kids, or the kids who struggle with learning challenges, or the kids who are just socially awkward, or the Jewish kids – always fit in just because of the color of their skin.
Mister Rogers started his television show because he knew that children needed to be loved. More than that: They needed to know they are worthy of love. The inexplicable viciousness of these attacks on children are one way in which we who are different are told we are not worthy. These attacks are coming from adults, or from children who learn this hatred from adults. It is shameful. It is unacceptable. And it is contrary to God’s command to all of us, which we hear most powerfully on this holiest of days.
In our public, civic life, we seem to have no way to talk to one another that is not nasty and hurtful. There seems to be no place today for civil discourse, for actually listening to someone else’s perspective and acknowledging it, even if you don’t agree with them. And the world of truthiness – a word coined in jest a few years ago by television satirist Stephen Colbert – has lost its irony in a deluge of outright lies.
Lies designed to divide us along racial or gender or religious lines. Lies designed to make us believe that if someone else’s life is improving, you are paying the price. Remember the old adage that a rising tide lifts all boats? Now it’s shark week, every week of the year.
Columnist David Brooks describes this as the rise of the wolves – leaders who, he says, “don’t so much have a shared ideology as a shared mentality.” And that mentality, he writes, is this:
“Wolves perceive the world as a war of all against all and seek to create the world in which wolves thrive, which is a world without agreed-upon rules, without restraining institutions, norms and etiquette.”
We are, Brooks writes, in a battle over how we establish relationship: We can do it either at a high level, “based on friendship, shared values, loyalty and affection” – or at a low level, “based on mutual selfish interest and a brutal, ends-justify-the-means mentality.”
“The grand project for those of us who believe in a high-level, civilized world order,” Brooks writes, “is to find ways to restore social trust. It is to find ways to restructure power – at all levels – in order to re-inspire faith in the system. It is to find common projects – locally, globally, and internationally – that diverse people can do together.”
It is time to take back our neighborhood from the selfish and the brutal, from the bigots and the bullies. We need to step out of the echo chamber that recycles and dresses up old hatreds in new language, and step into a wind-tunnel that will blow all of that away and make room for fresh air.
Balloons and kind slogans are not going to cut it. We have to get into the difficult work of those common projects right here in our own neighborhood – projects that we diverse people can do together.
Our Temple family does what it can. Donating and packing nutritious lunches for at-risk neighborhood children through the Altoona Mountain Lion BackPack Program. Serving tasty home-made meals to neighbors in need at the Love Feast at Simpson Temple. Some of us volunteer at Habitat for Humanity – which recognizes the dignity and responsibility that come with home ownership. Others have helped rebuild broken-down neighborhood playgrounds, knowing that fresh air and exercise are good for both the body and the spirit. And the Jewish community has been, from the beginning, part of IDA – “Improved Dwellings for Altoona” – a faith-based non-profit that insures that over a thousand needy people in our neighborhood have a safe and healthy place to live.
We do all of this – and we must do much, much more – not because we feel like it but because God commands us to do it.
The Holiness Code – Chapter 19 of Leviticus from which we will read later today – commands us to care for the poor and the hungry, to speak with integrity and truth, not to pervert justice, not to spread lies about our neighbors.
It commands us not to oppress strangers – those who do not look like us, or who do not talk like us, or who do not come from the same background as us: “The strangers who live with you shall be to you like citizens,” says God, “V’ahavta l’re-acha-kamocha. And you shall love them as yourself.”
We may take a cursory glance around our neighborhood and see almost all white faces. But just because we have few neighbors with brown or black skin, or few neighbors who speak a different native language than us – that does not absolve us from the task that God sets for us today.
As Mister Rogers himself taught, using the language that we Jews understand, “We are all called to be tikkun olam, repairers of creation.”
Fred Rogers made that public call for neighborliness in a special public service announcement created in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, when Muslims and Arabs were under siege in this country. It was a time when, like today, racism and panic and the building of walls took hold among some among us, when what our neighborhood needed most was compassion and reasonableness and new bridges of understanding.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book The Home We Build Together, wrote: “The best way of breaking down barriers between people or communities is through simple, unforced acts of kindness. One act can undo years of estrangement.”
One act of kindness. How about if we start there? Let’s make it something brave and unexpected and simple, like Mister Rogers sharing his wading pool with Officer Clemmons. One act, when we can say to another human being, created in the image of God: “It’s you, yourself. It’s you I like.”
What a revolution we might start! What a neighborhood we might build.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our commitment. And let us say together: Amen.
©2018 Audrey R. Korotkin
February 19, 1968. The debut episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood from WQED in Pittsburgh. The first time that the trolley would take viewers from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood of the real world to the Neighborhood of Make Believe – a land populated by creatures and characters drawn from Fred Rogers’ own vivid and expansive imagination.
It’s a place where a tame tiger lives in a clock with no hands – because you can make it any time you want it to be. A land where the mischevious and magical Lady Elaine Fairchilde has the power to literally turn the neighborhood upside down. A village where X the Owl, wise as he is in his old oak tree, admires Ben Franklin and has an insatiable thirst for learning. In other words, a place where anything and everything is possible, and the world can change from one moment to the next.
Which is a problem if change makes you uncomfortable. And that is the problem for King Friday the Thirteenth, titular ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, from the very first episode of the show.
In the real world, Mr. Rogers tells his viewers, he has been painting and changing around the furniture in his home, and putting up a new porch swing and some new pictures. He admits that he needed some time to get used to the changes, as we all do.
But in the Neighborhood of Make Believe – that place where anything really IS possible – there is chaos. Lady Elaine, it seems, has made some magical changes in the neighborhood – moving the clock here and there, switching the Eiffel Tower from one side of the castle to the other. Other creatures in the land are making do. But the king is furious. Change in his kingdom! Change without his permission! Change that isn’t his idea! Unforgiveable. Unacceptable. Arrest her, arraign her – he orders those around him.
By the second episode, the king has made both his aide Edgar and his niece, Lady Elaine, into border guards in uniforms, marching from one end of the palace to the other. He demands all visitors to the palace prove they are who they say they are, including his own family. Name, rank, and serial number.
“Remember our battle cry,” the king calls out: “Down with the changes!”
Edgar obediently chants: “Down with the changes, down with the changes! We don’t want anything to change.” To which the king adds: “’Cause we’re on top.”
And that’s the crux of his fear. After all, he’s the king. And it’s good to be the king. You boss people around to make yourself feel big and, maybe, to make others feel small. You make the rules, you call the shots – all to your own benefit.
Any hint of change might cause a crack in that armor of total authority. So he literally puts on armor and declares a state of emergency.
He acts as though the entire kingdom is at war, which terrifies its residents. But it’s really his battle alone – a battle to keep things just the way they are. Because he’s on top.
By the third day, it’s not the changes themselves that have people upset and sad in the Neighborhood of Make Believe, it’s the king’s reaction to them. Visitors are being turned away from the castle because they cannot provide a rank or serial number to go with their name.
And when, out of kindness and respect, a good friend, Chef Brockett, delivers a beautiful, special cake to the king, he slinks away – offended and unappreciated – when the king has it chopped into pieces to check for secret messages of change – “poisonous materials,” as the king calls them. “You never know,” the king declares. “There are changes about, and utmost care must be taken.”
The king’s paranoia grows by the fourth episode, when everyone in his Neighborhood and Mr. Rogers’ own neighborhood is given a punch clock. Everyone must punch in and out every time they go in or out, so that the king can track everyone’s movements. But that’s not enough for King Friday the Thirteenth. He heartily approves of the ring of razor-sharp barbed wire that’s been added around the castle grounds, just in case anyone tries to sneak in and change something.
By the fifth day, the residents of the Neighborhood are at the end of their rope. They have gotten used to Lady Elaine’s changes – in fact, they are enjoying them. The physical changes have opened their eyes to other positive changes they can make in their lives.
But they have to get that message to the king. Complaining hasn’t helped. The king ignores it. Complying hasn’t helped, either. The king just demands more. So Lady Aberlin tries a different tactic. She takes a bunch of helium balloons, ties to them messages of peace and love and tenderness and peaceful coexistence, and floats them over to the castle.
At first, he king fears he really is under attack when he sees the balloons coming toward him. But when he reads their messages of love – in that single moment, his heart melts, and his mind opens, and he understands that, if everyone else in the Neighborhood can handle change, then so can he.
The barbed wire disappears. The smiles return. And as the very first week of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood ends, the Neighborhood is once again a place where everyone accepts one another, trusts one another, and loves one another.
That’s how things go in the Neighborhood of Make Believe, where anything and everything is possible. Barriers can come down. Trust can triumph over fear. Change can be embraced rather than rejected. And the world’s problems can be solved in five days.
In our Neighborhood – in our world – it’s not quite as tidy, not nearly as simple, as floating balloons. But the struggle of King Friday the Thirteenth teaches us an important lesson on this holiest of days: Change will, and must, come into our lives. It will float in, in many different ways.
In times of uncertainty and constant turmoil around us, we may feel threatened; we may recoil from change and refuse to acknowledge or embrace it. We can put up our own barriers – physical or emotional. But whether the change is evolutionary or revolutionary, none of that will stop it from coming.
But accepting the changes around us requires us to allow change inside of us. In fact, that’s where the real power is. The power to embrace all our own potential allows us to see the potential in others. Opening our eyes to what we have to give allows us to see what we can give to others, so that they can fulfill their potential for good in this world.
King Friday’s struggle also leads me to re-think an old Jewish folk tale about how we see the world, and how we see ourselves. Here’s the way it goes:
Back in a small town in Poland lived a poor shopkeeper named Moshe, who earned just enough money to take care of his family. Not poor, but with no money to spare on anything but the bare necessities. Yet Moshe always managed to help others who were worse off than him. No visitor who came to his home ever left hungry. No destitute person was denied a few precious coins. But Moshe and his wife were happy. They ate simple food and lived a simple, but good and kind, life.
One day an elderly stranger passing through town stopped into Moshe’s little shop and noticed how kind and generous he was with everyone. Moshe treated the stranger the same way, inviting him to dine in his modest home and even spend the night.
The next morning, Moshe gave him a few coins and a sack of food to see him through to the end of his journey. The stranger, in turn, gave Moshe a blessing for happiness and prosperity beyond his wildest dreams, and then he went on his way.
That day, Moshe found his shop filled to bursting with people wanting to buy his wares. There were even more the next day, and the next. Moshe had to restock the shelves over and over again, with finer and finer things. He couldn’t believe his luck! Over time, Moshe became well-off, even rich. He bought a new house for his wife and they filled it with every luxury you could imagine.
But as he became richer, he also became stingier. He didn’t feed the hungry, or clothe the poo,r as he used to. His secretary handled any requests, and his staff ran his shop. He stayed mostly at home and admired his lovely things – the thick rugs, the heavy wooden furniture, the soft velvet drapes. He was especially fond of a grand mirror he’d acquired, with a coating of shiny silver and a massive and intricate gold frame. Glass and silver were precious – so the mirror was the ultimate symbol of wealth. Moshe would preen in front of it all day, admiring himself in his elegant wool coat and shiny leather boots. He was content with life. And he wanted everything to stay just the way it was.
One day, about a year later, a visitor knocked on the door of the home, which Moshe’s servant, of course, answered. It was, he told his master, a rabbi, who insisted that he must see Moshe in person. Moshe couldn’t be bothered, but the rabbi pushed his way into Moshe’s salon. He turned out to be that poor wayfaring stranger whom Moshe had treated so kindly a year before.
Moshe greeted the rabbi warmly, showering him with thanks for the blessing he had bestowed, treating him to a sumptuous meal, and showing off the riches that resulted from that blessing. “I’m particularly fond of this grand mirror,” Moshe boasted to the rabbi, “and how perfectly it reflects images.”
The rabbi called to Moshe and asked him to stand in front of the mirror. “What do you see?” he asked.
“Why, I see myself, of course,” replied Moshe. “My own reflection. And the many beautiful things in the room behind me. That’s all.”
Then the rabbi pulled Moshe to the front window. “What do you see now?” he asked.
Moshe looked out. There was so much activity on his street, so many people passing by. Moshe knew them all. The poor widow with many children, toting a basket hoping people would fill it with food. The water-carrier who was getting too old for his work. The young tailor who never had enough money for his family. And so many more.
“How strange it is,” marveled the rabbi. “A mirror and a window, both made of glass. When it’s just glass, you can see the whole town. But when it’s completely covered with silver, you can only see yourself.”
The rabbi left the house with Moshe was in tears. He finally understood how he had changed since he became rich. He finally understood how he had squandered the blessing of the rabbi – who had hoped that Moshe would use his success to help others as he always had done.
So that night, Moshe threw a house party and invited everyone in the town, rich or poor or anyone in between, including the widow and the tailor and the water-carrier. He promised he would always be there for them. And he showed them he was serious by taking a knife and, slowly and methodically, scraping off every bit of silver from the mirror until it was perfectly clear.
The moral of the story, as I understand it, is that we all need windows and not mirrors. We need to think of others and not ourselves. But I think the lesson is more complex than that.
Can you imagine if we only lived in houses of mirrors? All we would see is us and what we already have, or what we wish to obtain, to add to that shiny image of success. Remember the Mirror of Erised in the Harry Potter books? It was a magnificent mirror, as high as the ceiling, with an ornate gold frame, standing on two clawed feet – exactly like in our story. And it was said to have magical properties, so that anyone standing in front of it would see a reflection of their heart’s desire.
But in a way ALL mirrors are designed to do that – to flatter us, to focus on us – to the exclusion of everything and everyone else.
The danger with mirrors is that, like Moshe, our world would become only what we see in the mirror. We would never be encouraged to learn something new, or meet someone different. We’d never even see the people and the places in our very own neighborhood. It would never occur to us that someone outside the limited vision of one reflective surface might want or need our help. We would shut out the possibility of change and growth.
That’s what King Friday the Thirteenth tried to do. He built high walls around his castle, with barbed wire on top, to stop his world from changing. To keep new people and new ideas out. They were, he believed, a danger to him and his placid, comfortable life.
But if we only had windows – if we only saw what was going on outside – maybe that wouldn’t be so good, either. We might forget what King Friday the Thirteenth eventually learned: that the most powerful change happens from within. The messages that floated in on the balloons would not have worked if King Friday had not allowed his heart to open and realize that they were right and he was wrong.
What he did, we must do: Take the opportunity to reflect on ourselves – literally and figuratively – and to perform that nefesh chesbon, that spiritual checklist, which makes these high holy days a time of necessary growth, and change, and even transformation.
So: What if we had a mirror on the wall right next to our front window? We could look outside and really see our neighbors and what they have and what they need, just as Moshe eventually did. And then, we could take two steps to the right and take a good look at ourselves and think: When’s the last time I made a change that helped someone else. What can I do to make the world a finer place? The rabbis teach us that the Torah itself has seventy faces. Seventy ways of understanding what God wants from us. How wrong it would be if we only stood looking at one.
We actually can’t choose just one or the other. The necessary and inevitable changes in the world begin with the changes in ourselves. And that requires that we have both.
In the Haftarah tomorrow morning, we will hear the words of the prophet Isaiah, chiding across the millennia for looking into mirrors and not out at windows as well. Of thinking only of ourselves and our self-aggrandizement and not of the poor, the hungry, and the lonely. Not even bothering to look up at our own neighbors and welcome them into our homes and our hearts and our lives.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, retired chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, once wrote:
“Change is not threatening, so long as we keep firm hold of the values by and for which we live. We can travel with confidence so long as we have a map. We can jump with safety, knowing that there is someone to catch us as we fall.”
The only way we can trust that there’s someone else to catch us, is if we’re willing to be the one who will do the catching next time. Traveling along the path of life, we must be prepared for changes and chances and re-directions in our lives. Reflection on ourselves is useful and necessary, if it leads us to an acknowledgement that our reflections never, ever, are exactly the same twice.
Change – real change – most often, and most powerfully, comes from within us. It comes naturally – even joyfully — when we overcome our fears, and open ourselves to the possibilities of the new and the needs of the many. That’s when we can move with confidence into a world, and a year, of limitless possibilities. And THAT is when the world of reality turns into the Neighborhood of Make Believe, where anything and everything is possible.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our commitment in this new year. As we say together: Amen.
©2018 Audrey R. Korotkin
So, shana tova everybody! Here we are – at the start of a brand new year, with the opportunity for a clean slate. New challenges to face. New opportunities to overcome them. New ways to right past wrongs. That’s what we talk about most at this time of year, isn’t it? But that’s not the only conversation many of us are having with ourselves this morning. And it’s certainly not the conversation many of us have with ourselves every other morning of the year.
In a cosmic sense – looking at the really, really, big picture – we sit here, pondering the creation of the world, and we wonder, “Why am I here? How do I fit in to God’s plan for the world? How do I figure out what my role is supposed to be?”
But the question also nags at us on a very small, intimate level: “Why AM I here? Do I really belong? Where do I belong? Or is my very existence some kind of mistake?”
The need to belong is an ache that each of us feels deep within. The need for purpose. The need to fit in, and not to be different. The need for companionship, so that we are not alone.
Of all the lessons that Mr. Rogers taught us, perhaps the most important one of all was this: Each of us is beloved. Each of us is precious. Each of us belongs. It’s a lesson that Mr. Rogers himself took to heart – the answer to a question that seems to have nagged him personally all of his life.
Fred Rogers not only wrote most of the scripts for his program, but he also did the puppetry. And while he voiced most of the characters, one character also echoed Fred Rogers’ own voice.
Daniel Tiger was not just a character. He was the mouthpiece that allowed Fred Rogers to say things that he was afraid to say for himself, to ask questions or challenge ideas that he felt he couldn’t do on his own. One of his most poignant and important questions came in a conversation with Lady Aberlin, in which he shared his deepest fear:
“I’ve been wondering if I was a mistake. For one thing, I’ve never seen a tiger that looks like me. And I’ve never heard a tiger that talks like me. And I don’t know any other tiger who lives in a clock. Or loves people. Sometimes I wonder if I’m too tame. . . . I’m not like anyone else I know. I’m not like anyone else.”
Daniel Tiger might have given voice to the childhood fears that Fred Rogers still had, the scars he still bore. But he also speaks for many of us, who feel different. A woman in a man’s world. A gay person in a straight world, or a transgender person who is in between worlds. An older worker passed over in favor of youth. An impoverished person in a sea of wealth. An abused spouse who is deliberately isolated. A person whose disability is sometimes doubted because it is invisible, be it a learning challenge, a phobia, or deep depression. Am I mad all the time? Am I sad all the time? Am I a mistake?
Hedda Sharapan, who has been a part of the Mister Rogers Company since 1966, said that this conversation was her favorite Daniel Tiger moment on the program. And apparently not hers alone.
“I used the video,” she said, “at a conference where I was speaking for therapists and mental health counselors. When I showed this particular video, the room just broke out into this warm, appreciative applause.”
Those in the room understood how important it was for Daniel Tiger – or anyone else – to be able to express their fears in a safe place. And how life-affirming it is to hear from another human being that, as Lady Aberlin sang back to Daniel: “I think you are just fine as you are.”
Fine doesn’t mean perfect – by some subjective standard. It doesn’t even mean totally healthy or healed. When the Torah says, in the book of Deuteronomy (18:13) תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ– “You shall be tamim – perfect – before Adonai your God” – every single major commentator instead renders the phrase, “You must be wholehearted with God.”
“Follow God wholeheartedly and look expectantly to God,” says Rashi. Adds Nachmanides: “We must unify our hearts with God’s and believe that God alone does all and knows the reality of all that is to come.”
Tamim means treasured. It means loved. It means that being different – or even unique – is not a mistake. In fact, in the grand cosmic scheme of Jewish thought, it is the way God intended for us to be.
Think about the creation of the world that we celebrate today. God made everything else before human beings, the one creature described as being “made in God’s image.” But what is God’s image? Look around at humanity. Look at its vast array of skin colors, religious and faith traditions, sexual and gender identities, levels of cognitive ability, levels of physical ability, levels of emotional wellness. All of that has to be part of God. Nobody is a mistake. Everyone simply represents a different, unique facet of divinity in this world.
This isn’t some 21st-century new-age doctrine. It’s as ancient as our Jewish tradition.
It starts in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5), the first post-Biblical collection of Jewish law compiled almost two thousand years ago. There, the Rabbis teach us why – when all the other animals were created two by two – why all of us descend from only one original human being, Adam, a hermaphrodite who carried all the physical traits of what we all would become:
“Man was created singly . . .” they wrote, “to declare the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be God. For man stamps out many coins with one die, and they are all alike. But the Sovereign of all Sovereigns, blessed be God, stamped each man with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his fellow. Therefore each and every one is obliged to say, ‘It was for my sake that the world was created.’”
God deliberately created each and every one of us unlike everyone else. When Daniel Tiger says, I must be a mistake because I’m not like everybody else – we say (and Judaism says), NO – you are not like everybody else because God made you that way. And I think you’re fine the way you are. Not perfect. Maybe not whole. Or entirely healthy – for now. But blessed. And treasured. And loved.
And anyone who attempts to abuse you, or belittle you, or reject you because of what you look like, or who you love, or how you pray, or how emotionally challenging it can be for you just to get through a single day – is rejecting God’s intent for this world.
As Mr. Rogers put it, “I think those who would try to make you less than you are . . . that is the greatest evil.”
Today, even more than in Mr. Rogers’ time, our world is full of people with a sense of superiority and entitlement, who seem to believe that God gave them and them alone the right to make the rules of society – rules that allow them to accrue most of the power and nearly all the wealth, because others are inherently less deserving.
We see them marching in Charlottesville, to the chant of “Jews will not replace us.” We hear them spewing racism at rallies and physically threatening people of dark skin. We witness countless attempts to deny basic public accommodation to people who are gay or trans. And even in an age of #Me Too, when men of power are being taken down by that sense of superiority, we see the institutions they have created perpetuating their misogyny.
They, in Mr. Rogers’ words, try to make the rest of us less than we are. And we must never let that happen.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the retired chief rabbi of Great Britain, writes about the essence of this goal:
“There is only one non-utopian way of creating the good without the harm, and that is to create programmes of what in Hebrew is called chessed, in Latin caritas, or in English, loving kindness, across boundaries. We must love strangers as well as neighbours, in the simple sense of love-as-deed, practical help. That imperative flows from the covenant of human solidarity.”
Chessed is the essence of what Mr. Rogers worked for, what Daniel Tiger was really asking for, and what all of us, on this first day of the new year, pray for.
Once, Mister Rogers challenged us: “Let’s make goodness attractive in the next millennium, people caring for each other in a myriad of ways and not knocking each other down.”
This morning I challenge you: “Let’s make goodness attractive in the next year. Seeing and treating each other as equals. Respecting each other’s differences.”
“Man was created alone,” say the rabbis of old, “for the sake of peace among peoples.” And true peace can only come from deep reverence for the majestic and intentional diversity and equality of God’s creation.
This is the way to sustain the world that God created for all of us.
Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2018 Audrey R. Korotkin