Erev Rosh Hashanah 2018: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

It all begins with modulation. Fred Rodgers, his hands hovering softly over the piano keys, describes in musical terms the core idea for his iconic program, which put Pittsburgh and public television on the map and helped shape a generation of American children.

Modulation is the art of changing from one key to another, to give structure and tone to any piece of music. Some of these modulations, Mr. Rogers explains, are easy because they are natural progressions from one key to a similar one. But some modulations are more difficult. They might sound strange. They might be harder to play. My job, says Mr. Rogers, is to help children handle modulation in life.

This is the opening scene of the wonderful new biographical film about Fred Rogers entitled, appropriately enough, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”

But “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is more than a well-worn theme song.

It’s the core of what Fred Rogers wanted to achieve by helping children navigate the modulations of life: creating a human being who was comfortable with himself and caring of others; a human being who presumed that life was meant to be lived in community; a human being who took it for granted – by the time of adulthood – that her neighborhood would be big, broad, diverse, inclusive, and, above all, loving.

For children to navigate modulation in life – the successes alongside the failures, the progressions along with the regressions, the atonal dissonance of anger and loss that accompanies the rich beauty of serenity and growth –

– for children to navigate those modulations, they need the assurance that they are loved and are worthy of love, and that they are capable of giving love to others, who are equally as worthy.

That’s a beautiful message for children to hear. But what about the rest of us? After all, here we all are, on the eve of this new year, eager to be reassured of God’s love for us, of feeling that we are worthy of receiving divine forgiveness and blessing for this new year. Don’t we need to hear that message, too?

Of course we do.

But we need to understand that the two parts of Mr. Rogers’ message must go together. One cannot exist without the other. If we are worthy of love, so is everyone else. V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha, says the Torah: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Or, as Mr. Rogers puts it: You shall love your neighbor and yourself. It is impossible to navigate the modulations of life until we acknowledge and fulfill both parts of that message.

We do it through time. We do it through space. We do it through others.

PART ONE: WE LEARN FROM TIME

Time is one thing we never seem to have enough of. As grown-ups we exhaust ourselves trying to accomplish everything on our to-do list, flitting from one task to another as the little bell goes off on our cell phones, reminding us of yet another deadline. And because we think that’s the way life ought to be, we instill that in children at an early age, and they become slaves to schedules and deadlines.

If they play basketball, they have to practice every single day and be available for every single game or they get kicked off the team. If they take pride in learning, they become terrified of missing one single day of school, for fear that will put them perpetually behind.

Downtime is now looked at as mere idleness. Something to be avoided at all cost. It’s best to stay busy, we believe, because that’s how we better ourselves. That’s how we succeed.

Leave it to the Israelis to burst our bubble.

Not long ago, a team of researchers from Ben Gurion University studied the psychology of the soccer goalie. We all know that the outcome of a soccer match can often come down to what’s called a penalty kick. That’s when a team tries to shoot the ball past the goalie who’s standing directly in front of them, from just 12 yards away.

The goalie has to stop the ball while remaining on the horizontal of the goal line. Before the ball is kicked he has to choose which way to go – to the left or to the right. We’ve all seen when the goalie gets it right and literally saves the day. We’ve also witnessed what happens when he zigs while the ball zags. But at least he moved. At least he did something to try and help his team win, right?

Except that maybe he didn’t.

In reality, this study shows, if the goalie had just stayed put, he would have had as good a chance as if he’d moved one way or the other. Goalies never do that of course. They go to the left about 49 percent of the time and to the right about 44 percent of the time. Which means they stay in place less than seven percent of the time.

But kicks actually go to the left 32 percent of the time and to the right less than 29 percent of the time. They go down the center over 39 percent of the time. Goalies are actually more likely to stop a ball on a penalty kick if they just stay put.

So why don’t they? That’s the question that fascinated Professor Bradley Staats from the University of North Carolina’s business school. Recently, in an essay in the Wall Street Journal, he gave us the answer:

“The problem is that we have an action bias: We would rather be seen doing something than doing nothing. When the going gets tough, the tough get going, right? This idea is so deeply ingrained that we are afraid to give the appearance of doing nothing, even when it is the best strategy.”

The goalies, when asked, said they preferred to dive to the left or to the right – and that they’d be more regretful about missing the ball if they stayed still. In other words, says Professor Staats, “they wanted to be seen to be doing something, even if that something was wrong.”

I call this “compulsive action.” And compulsive action is quite different from actually getting something accomplished. Studies show that employees who get to work early and stay late are seen as more committed or more dedicated to their work. But they are not necessarily actually more productive. In one study of managers who thought their employees should spend more time at work – and who penalized those who didn’t – they actually could not tell the difference in the quality of work between the two groups.

Busy-ness – compulsive action – doesn’t make us better. It just makes us more busy. And more tired. And more stressed.

Professor Staats challenges our basic notion about the value of busy-ness this way:

“We live and work today in a learning economy. We can’t just be knowledge workers; we must also be learning workers. And learning requires recharging and reflection, not constant action. . .

“When we sit at our desks and debate whether to take a short walk or to brainstorm for five minutes on the problem at hand, we may think that the time spent not acting is wasted. But we need sufficient time to rejuvenate during the workday, between workdays, and on vacations, if we are to be able to learn successfully.”

Mr. Rogers understood the value of time. He once asked: “Want to see how long a minute is?” – and then he set an egg timer and watched and waited until the timer went off. It turns out a minute is a very long time. And we have a tendency to think that every minute has to be filled up.

Mr. Rogers showed us that time is too valuable to fill up with busy-ness, just as we are. As film reviewer Joe Morgenstern wrote, “Rogers chose to let time slide at whatever pace suited him as he looked little kids in the eye and told them with steadfast conviction that they were loved, and lovable just as they were.”

Think about how you feel when someone you’re trying to have an important conversation with is busy looking around for five other things to do at the same time, or checking her phone for text messages – not making eye contact, not spending those valuable seconds focused only on you what you are trying to say. Now think if you’ve done the same thing to someone else. I’d guess it’s happened, and more than once.

A minute is a very powerful thing. A minute of your time is precious. But a minute of someone else’s life is just as important.

We adults sometimes forget that. When Mr. Rogers ended his children’s show the first time around, he tried to translate that to an adult program – where he would slow down time and ask his guests to explain or explore something patiently and quietly. And the show did not succeed.

My theory is – that’s because we, as adults, have become slaves to compulsive action. We won’t allow ourselves to stop. We think of it as leisure time we don’t have, that a precious minute would just be wasted. In radio, we call it ‘dead air’ – when someone just stops talking. Dead air is bad. Every second has to be filled with someone’s voice, even if he or she isn’t saying anything of value.

Adults teach children to hate dead air. Mr. Rogers became an anomaly, even in children’s programming. Watch any children’s television show or any film that’s geared to kids. They are loud and fast. That’s the way children consume everything now, and the way they learn to repeat it. They grow into adults who consume movie sequels where the second film, and the third, has to be bigger, and louder, and faster than the original.

Why can’t we simply take the time to learn something fully, and to grow from that knowledge? Why can’t we learn to stop acting for the sake of being busy?

That’s a skill that would help us in this world of non-stop sensory stimuli.

In Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, he could just slow things down to talk fully through one important feeling or event or problem. In our neighborhoods, we are constantly bombarded by information and allegations and half-baked conspiracy theories – much of it perpetuated by those who rely on the fact that we won’t slow down and won’t take stock, and won’t investigate what’s true and what’s not, or what’s fair and what’s not, or what’s helpful and what’s not.

Or what’s kind and what’s not.

What a nicer neighborhood we would have to live in, if we took that precious minute to really sort out life’s modulations. We’ll return to that minute shortly.

PART TWO: WE LEARN FROM SPACE

If time is a gift to be cherished second by second, then space is one to be explored inch by inch. In Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, space was always divided into the “real world” and the Neighborhood of Make Believe, with a little toy trolley ferrying us between the two.

In Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, things pretty much stayed the same from one day to the next. It was status quo. But on the other end of the train tracks, in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, anything could happen.

Its space was not limited by norms or expectations. The colors and the shapes and the inhabitants of the land of make-believe taught children that anything was possible. Im tirtsu ein zo agadah, as Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, once declared. If you will it, it is not a dream.

But the space that most of us inhabit today is status quo to the ‘nth’ degree. We have created neighborhoods that are static, that feed on themselves, that expand but do not grow. We live with people who look like us, and work like us, and talk like us. Instead of thinking and dreaming of what is possible, we settle for what already exists.

How many of you have one of those voice-controlled devices at home, like Amazon Echo or Google Home? Echo is an ironically perfect name for it, right? There’s a built-in interface that makes it seem like you’re communicating with a sentient being when you’re really just talking to yourself:

Here’s how the Amazon web site promotes Alexa:

“Using Alexa is as simple as asking a question. Just ask to play music, read the news, control your smart home, tell a joke, and more—Alexa will respond instantly. Whether you are at home or on the go, Alexa is designed to make your life easier by letting you voice-control your world.”

“By letting you voice-control your world.” Exactly. You tell the system what you want, how you want it, when you want it. Voice-activation is all about control, not about exploration. Compare that to, say, one of those old fashioned television remote controls. In the old days, when cable tv was new and exciting, we would spend so much time channel surfing – moving from one channel to the next to the next to the next – in search of something that caught our attention. We’d find programs or films or sporting events we never thought about before, or never thought we would like, or never even knew existed. We discovered enjoyment outside of our preconceived notions about what we thought we wanted.

When we use voice commands, we’re really talking to ourselves. It’s just an echo back. So we shut off all possibility of something new. We ask Alexa to start our playlist of choice. We command the Xfinity controller to switch to a familiar movie or TV program. Our world becomes smaller and samer.

I still use the clicker. And when I do, my point of reference about the world grows. Sometimes it’s the “Great British Baking Show.” Sometimes it’s a documentary about victims of war in Syria. But I always learn more, and appreciate more, and am in awe more, about the world when space expands around me.

In a way, when we use those clickers to expand instead of demand, we become like the children Mr. Rogers had such faith in. The ones who pay attention to, and learn from, everything in the space around them.

A few years ago, Alison Gopnik wrote a book called “The Philosophical Baby,” in which she speculated that children might actually be more aware of their surroundings than adults are. And adults wrote to her in agreement.

“A store detective,” she says, “described how he would perch on an upper balcony surveying the shop floor. The grown-ups, including the shoplifters, were so focused on what they were doing that they never noticed him. But the little children, trailing behind their oblivious parents, would glance up and wave.”

Psychological tests seemed to confirm Gopnik’s suspicions. In tests that involved a group of adults and a group of 4 and 5 year olds, everyone was asked to watch a colored panel for changes in green objects and ignore the red ones.

The adults were great at noticing changes in the green objects, as they’d been directed to. But the children were better at spotting changes in the red ones in the background.

“We often say,” writes Gopnik, “that young children are bad at paying attention. But what we really mean is that they’re bad at not paying attention, that they don’t screen out the world as grown-ups do. Children learn as much as they can about the world around them, even if it means that they get distracted by the distant airplane in the sky or the speck of paper on the floor when you’re trying to get them out the door to pre-school.”

The lesson that Gopnik takes from her studies is really a lesson for grown-ups: to take the time to explore the space around us. As she writes, “We are so often focused on our immediate goals that we miss unexpected developments and opportunities. Sometimes by focusing less, we can actually see more.”

Mr. Rogers counted on children being more open to time and space, more adaptable to change. He cultivated it, knowing that they had not yet been caught up in the echo chamber of voice commands and selected news feeds, and compulsive action. They did not yet bear the imprint of narrowed vision, lowered expectations, and acceptance of the status quo.

Mister Rogers hoped that their neighborhood could be the land of make-believe, even when they grew up. Tonight is the night we might start to make his hopes come true.

PART THREE: WE LEARN FROM EACH OTHER

But we cannot do that alone. Just as we, as Jews, do not pray alone and do not pray for ourselves alone – just as there’s a reason all of you are in the pews tonight, all together, side by side, sharing this sacred time, your spaces intertwining with each other’s – just as we do this as Jews, we must do this as human beings. We live in neighborhood. We live with, and learn from, and learn to cherish, one another.

Professor Staats – the guy from the University of North Carolina – tells this story from the early days of the career of Thomas J. Watson, who would go on to be the head of IBM. Meeting with a group of sales managers, Watson was frustrated that his employees simply were not coming up with good ideas to grow and expand and advance the business. Said Watson: “The trouble with every one of us is that we don’t think enough.”

And here’s why that was happening: Thinking requires communication. Thrashing out ideas with other people. Giving people the time to be creative, and sharing that energetic space with them.

In rabbinical school, we learn to study in hevruta, in partnership, with another student. I’ll confess, I hated that. I just like to be by myself, working on my own thing at my own pace. But the world of hevruta is the lifeline to growth. If we become stuck in one mindset – or one way to understand a text – we close ourselves off to all the myriad possibilities that other people might come up with.

The rabbis say that Torah has seventy faces. I could never think of 70 different ways to understand a verse of Scripture on my own.

But in my hevruta – whether it’s in class, or at a convention, or during an on-line learning program – I am astonished and awed by what my colleagues show me. Continuing education is now considered a requirement for members of my rabbinical organization. As it should be for everyone.

Because of hevruta, my intellectual neighborhood is bigger – in space and in time – than it ever was. It is more exciting. It is more inclusive. It is more fulfilling.

But we have to find a way to translate that into our physical neighborhoods, the space where we live and work and play and eat and pray. And we must consider: What, exactly is our neighborhood? Where is it? Who’s in it? How do you get in? And who decides who our neighbors will be?

There was a fascinating – and troubling — article in The Atlantic monthly this summer, in which Matthew Stewart wrote about what he called “the birth of a new aristocracy.” Not the upper point-one percent – but the nine-point-nine percent just below it – which prosper because of opportunities that the other 90 percent do not have.

That 9.9 percent is where Matthew Stewart grew up. “We are,” he wrote, “the people of good family, good health, good schools, good neighborhoods, and good jobs.” All things considered, that’s also where most of us fall.

Now, that’s not to say our story of our good fortune is the same as his. Unlike Matthew Stewart, whose great-great grandfather made his millions as the chairman of Standard Oil of Indiana, our grandparents and great-grandparents came here penniless from Russia and Poland and the Ukraine.

They escaped poverty and pogroms, in the hope that their children – all of us – would have a better and happier and more prosperous life.

They toiled away as cobblers and dressmakers and dry-goods salesmen and civil servants. Their children got a free public education and earned enough to go to college.

We are the beneficiaries of their backbreaking dedication to this country and to all of us. They knew the world was not a land of make-believe. Their time and space were impacted by the limits of their education, and their language skills. But they spent their lives toiling away so that we would not be held back by those limits -that the world would be, for us, a place where anything was possible.

So of course we pass whatever advantages we have down to our children and grandchildren. Of course we do. That’s what we have to offer them. And we should not be ashamed that we are able to do that for them. But neither should we ignore the fact that others who have striven just as hard are not succeeding as we have. Neither should we accept the general stereotype that those who remain mired in poverty or in ignorance or in danger in their neighborhoods are less worthy, or have all brought it upon themselves.

Matthew Stewart points to a myriad of reasons why other neighborhoods are not like ours: The expense of parenting and the physical dangers of motherhood; the attacks on family planning and reproductive rights; regressive tax laws that increasingly allow the wealthy to keep more and the rest to pay more; law and order policing that divides families for a generation.

But there is also, he writes, “some garden-variety self-centeredness, enabled by the usual cognitive lapses. Human beings are very good at keeping track of their own struggles; they are less likely to know that individuals on the other side of town are working two minimum-wage jobs to stay afloat, not watching Simpsons reruns all day”

From this self-centeredness has arisen fear, stress, and – most of all – resentment. Resentment of what other people have and how they got it. Resentment that, somehow, life is unfair. Resentment that other people are scooping up the goodies and leaving us with less. “Other” people – that is, people not of our neighborhood. People of a different color, or ethnic background, or religion, or social status. It is this resentment – stoked by ever-present social-media feeds and self-serving information bubbles – that creates the polarization of Amercian life today.

But as Stewart keenly observes, “resentment is a solution to nothing.”

Resentment does not alleviate the inequality that is growing between neighborhoods in American life today. In fact, it’s designed to perpetuate inequality – by convincing some people that the only way they can keep what they have, is to prevent other people from getting more. By propagating the notion that the space we inhabit is not big enough for others – that it cannot be made big enough for others. Even though Mr. Rogers taught us all as children that space – like time – is bigger than we think.

As Matthew Stewart writes: “It’s going to take something from each of us. . . we need to peel our eyes away from the mirror of our own success and think about what we can do in our everyday lives for the people who aren’t our neighbors.”

Over the course of the High Holy Days, we will explore the world of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and the opportunities it offers us to break down the walls we build around ourselves and invite in those who make our lives richer than they could ever have been, had we closed them out. Alongside our prayers for ourselves and those we love, we will be reminded to pray for others. Alongside our voices pleading for God’s compassion and mercy, we will hear the voice of God from Scripture calling us to accept and assist the stranger, the other, the vulnerable and the troubled.

For now, I want to try Mr. Rogers’ experiment in time, with a little twist. How long do you think a minute is? Let’s find out.

Right now, I’d like you to close your eyes and remember someone who has made a difference in your life. Not just anyone. Pick someone who isn’t just like you. Someone of a different color, or a different ethnicity, or a different religion, or a different economic or social standing. How did you meet. How did they change you? How did they became your neighbor?

I’ll give you a whole minute. The egg-timer will be running . . . .

(the egg timer clicks after a minute)

Tonight, of all nights, as we look out at the expanse of space and time that is our New Year, we owe it to ourselves acknowledge that the world that God has given us is more spacious and diverse and generous than the tiny little bit of eternity that we inhabit. This world is our neighborhood. And it is our God-given responsibility to sustain it for all our neighbors.

Ken Yehi Ratson: Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

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©2018 Audrey R. Korotkin

 

 

 

 

 

 

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