I just came home from watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the new documentary about Mr Rogers. Sitting in theater, between tears (of which the movie brought many), I reflected that Mr Rogers influenced me as a rabbi and as a teacher, more than I realized. I also remembered that I preached about him, on the Shabbat following his death 15 years ago. It is actually a pretty good sermon (some of you may know that I tend to be rather critical of my early sermons). It meanders a bit, but I think I have a good point. In reading it, I was also surprised to read about a basketball player protesting the National Anthem!!! Amazing how relevant things from the past can be (also a running theme of the film). I highly recommend that you go see the film–it was excellent on many levels. And I share my sermon on him with you now.
Shabbat Evening Sermon
February 28, 2003 27 Adar A, 5763
A strong childhood memory: curled up on the couch in our den, covered in an afghan, my mother beside me with her needle-point on the bean-bag. I would watch the PBS afternoon line-up with wide eye, eagerly anticipating every moment of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and Electric Company. My mother would fall asleep 10 minutes into Mr. Rogers, even though it was her favorite. It was because of these memories that yesterday, when I heard of Mr. Rogers’ passing, that I immediately called my mom. We reminisced about those times, long ago, when I learned so many important lessons from watching TV.
This is not to say that I was raised by the television set; my parents also instilled important values in me, and family activities were always more important than staring at the small box in our den, but I’ll freely admit that I learned a lot from watching tv. And I enjoyed watching tv. I still do. But the lessons I learn from the small screen these days aren’t nearly as potent as those I learned when I was young. From Sesame Street, I learned my letters, my numbers, a little bit of Spanish, and that no matter what color your fur—we’re really all the same; from Electric company, I learned grammar, phonics, that reading is fun, and that Spider Man is cool; and from Mr. Rogers, I learned how to be a good friend, that ritual is important, that it’s okay to have bad feelings, and that I can never go down the drain. Looking back, I think that the lessons that Mr. Rogers taught me were probably the most important. With his life, Fred McFeely Rogers taught generations of children how to be confident, feeling, good people.
According to him, the goal of his program was to encourage in his audience self-esteem, self-control, imagination, creativity, curiosity, appreciation of diversity, cooperation, tolerance for waiting, and persistence. There are few, if any, children’s programs today that claim such lofty goals. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood not only set forth these goals, but persisted with them throughout its run as the longest running children’s show on television, and seems to have succeeded in fostering these qualities in its viewers. Mr. Rogers was never cool, but so many loved him anyway. Even Eddie Murphy, who lampooned the television program on Saturday Night Live with his recurring Mr. Robinson’s neighborhood sketch, is said to have hugged Mr. Rogers when they met. That seemed to have been the reaction that many had to meeting the man who spoke to them through the TV.
It’s not hard to remember what so many of us learned from Mr. Rogers through his life—for he truly lived the messages that he taught. His life was a lesson for us all. Americans mourn today the loss of one who was an influence on so many—we have lost a member of our communal family. We learned from his life—but what can we learn from his death? Perhaps his passing can be a reminder to us of the lessons we learned so long ago. While we all know these things on a certain level, some of these lessons are easy to forget—that it’s okay to be afraid, or angry, or sad; that every person is special; that each of us is special; and that friends are supposed to take care of one another. Perhaps the lesson of his passing is the lesson of the sanctity of life.
As we remember Mr. Rogers, let us each change our shoes, put on our cardigan, and go forth in order to bring these lessons into reality. As he sang at the end of every episode, “It’s a good feeling to know you’re alive.” Let us each appreciate life as the precious, fragile gift that it is. Let us each teach each other and teach the younger generations of today the important lessons that we learned when we were younger. And let us examine the lessons that are taught from today’s television.
I don’t believe that all television is bad. I don’t believe that the very act of watching television is destructive to children. I don’t believe that we need to completely restrict the programming that is offered on TV. I do believe, though, that we need to restrict our children in what we allow them to watch. And that this is true for those of us who are parents, and for those of us who are not. It is our communal responsibility to teach those younger than ourselves the lessons that we want them to learn. We must instill in them pride, and confidence, and tolerance. And we must instill in them Judaism. We must teach them to place these lessons in their hearts, and to live them with every step they take. We must make them aware of that which exists in our world, and of what should be important. We must encourage them to stand up for themselves, and to fight for their beliefs.
I found myself very interested this week in the news story about Toni Smith, the Manhattanville College basketball player who turned her back on the flag during the National Anthem, in protest of, “the inequalities that are embedded into the American system” and “the war American will soon be entering,” according to a statement that she released recently. While I may disagree with her beliefs, I applaud Smith for her willingness to not compromise that which she feels most strongly. I certainly support those who have protested with American Flags of their own at each game that she plays—they, too, are standing up for that which is important to them. Both sides have the right to protest—the right to peacefully demonstrate those ideals which we hold most dear. I pray that our own young people are able to articulate their own beliefs and to behave accordingly. If they choose to turn their own backs on the American Flag, I will be sad, but proud. It is another sort of turning that concerns me more. I pray that the young people who are my students never choose to turn their backs on Torah.
Hashiveinu Adonai, Turn us Eternal One, towards Torah and towards you, so that we may be able to help those around us turn, as well. Traditionally, we never turn our backs on the Torah when it is out—we face it always, even during the hakafah, as we circle around the room with the Torah, as we remove it for reading. We touch the Torah as it passes us, so that we may bring it close to us. There are few sights that I like more during services, than watching a parent hold us a child, so that they may touch the Torah, as well. May we always teach our children—all our children—that the Torah is theirs, and that it should always be near to us, facing us. When the Torah disturbs us, when God disturbs us, we must not turn away, but we must face forward. In order to wrestle, one must face the opponent. When we struggle with tradition, we must face it, as well. And as we raise a generation of young people who are not likely to visit Israel, let us encourage them to not turn their backs on Israel, either. Let the news from Israel be as important as the news from America. Let the voices of our children sing forth the words of Hatikvah, the Israeli National Anthem, “So long as still within the inmost heart a Jewish spirit sings, so long as the eye looks eastward, gazing toward Zion, our hope is not lost—the hope of two thousand years: to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” May we teach our children to gaze towards the east, facing the Israeli flag, so that the hope will always be a reality.
Mr. Rogers taught us that we all live in one neighborhood. As Jews, we live, actually, in two: the worldwide community of the Jewish people and the global community, more real than ever in the Age of the Internet. We must be active participants in both communities, so that these communities will be ones in which we will want future generations to live. We must engage in tikkun olam, so that those broken pieces of the world are mended. We must take the hand of the children beside us, leading them toward the future, and never letting them turn their backs on what is truly important.
May we all recognize the lessons of Mr. Rogers: that every person in the community is important, even in the Neighborhood of Makebelieve; that our feelings are important, even when they are uncomfortable; and that when we care for one another, every day can be a beautiful day in the neighborhood. And on that day, every home can be a mishkan, a tabernacle; every family a k’hillah kedosha, a holy community; and every person can be a B’tzalel, the artist who puts it all together.