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