Erev Yom Kippur 2018: “King Friday the Thirteenth: Nothing Must Change”

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.

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©2018 Audrey R. Korotkin

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