Won’t You be My Neighbor?
Kol Nidre – 5779
It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood!
A beautiful day for a neighbor
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
It’s a neighborly day in this beauty wood
A neighborly day for a beauty
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you
I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you
So, Let’s make the most of this beautiful day
Since we’re together, we might as well say
Would you be my, could you be my
Won’t you be my neighbor?
Won’t you please, won’t you please
Please won’t you be my neighbor?
Since we’re together on this awesome day, this beautiful day, we might as well acknowledge that we are all in this together. Won’t you be my neighbor?
Unlike many of you, I did not grow up with Mr. Rogers, but I did see the recent film whose title comes from the last line of that song, “Won’t You be my Neighbor?” I was so deeply moved by the story of Fred Rogers and his powerful legacy, but saddened that our world right now does not feel like Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. The essence of a neighborliness that is based on trust, decency, civility and kindness is deeply under threat in our culture right now. There is so much we can continue to learn from Mr. Rogers, who was such a deeply spiritual man, an ordained minister.
I recently watched a video of him giving the commencement address at Middlebury College in 2001. He was speaking about the act of bowing as “acknowledging the presence of the Eternal in our neighbor.” He said, “I believe that appreciation is a holy thing. When we look for what’s best in the person we happen to be with in the moment, we are doing what God does all the time. So in appreciating our neighbor, we are participating in something truly sacred.” I could so easily write a sermon entirely based on quotes and ideas from Mr. Rogers because he possessed the capacity to present the deepest spiritual concepts in ways that children and our own inner children can understand. How much time do we really take in our busy, sometimes competitive lives, to stop and appreciate our neighbor?
I recently spoke about Brene Brown’s elaboration of the concept of “strong back, soft front, wild heart,” in her newest book Braving the Wilderness, as a formula for living a full and authentic life:knowing who we are, opening ourselves to being vulnerable and following our truth. This is what we need in our neighborhood, the one where Mr. Rogers valued every individual and their inherent worth. He used to say “nobody else can live the life you live.” His version of the “soft front” vulnerability is also an important part of his brand of neighborliness. He said:
“People have said, ‘Don’t cry’ to other people for years and years, and all it has ever meant is, ‘I’m too uncomfortable when you show your feelings. Don’t cry.’ I’d rather have them say, ‘Go ahead and cry. I’m here to be with you.’”
That’s what we need in our world right now, in our neighborhood, in our community; the capacity to support each other whoever we are and whatever we feel, and to treat each other with kindness. It is more than okay to cry on Yom Kippur; it is sort of recommended as part of the medicine of this day. Go ahead and cry. We’re here to be with you.
My last Mr. Rogers quote, for now anyway, is this. “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.” He was presumably riffing off an earlier, similar quote by Henry James.
Rabbi Akiva says “v’ahavta l’re’echa camocha. Zeh clal gadol baTorah.” You shall love your neighbor as yourself. This is a primary principle of the Torah. Much ink has been spilled on the various ways to interpret the obligation to love the neighbor and to define who is and who is not your neighbor. For Mr. Rogers, of course, your neighbor is whoever you happen to be with in the moment, whoever they are; because they are your neighbor, they deserve our kindness and our respect. I hope that’s what Rabbi Akiva meant too.
Yom Kippur is an individual journey, but we are in it together. Alone together. The core liturgical pieces are the selichot and vidui, passages of pardon and confession, as we face the reality of who we have been and who we want to be. Among the list of 44 sins, or more accurately the moments where we have missed the mark, are many that can be understood to mean that from our hearts, our eyes, our speech, our greed, our lust, we have not been kind and that has caused a breech. The act of confessing in this Yom Kippur neighborhood, through the words and the tapping of our hearts, has the capacity to open channels of possibility for greater kindness in the coming year; to turn our hearts of stone to hearts of flesh.
One of the Hebrew words from the Bible that touches on the idea of kindness is hesed from which comes a whole category of deeds, gemillut hassadim – acts of lovingkindness – including neighborly activities like visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, honoring the dead, comforting the mourners and more. The Bonai Shalom neighborhood strives to do many of these as part of our community’s Hesed work under the leadership of Caron Bennett. Won’t you be our neighbor?
The Hebrew word hesed actually birthed a new word in the English language. In 1535 Myles Coverdale published the first-ever translation of the Hebrew Bible into English. When he came to the word hesed, he realised that there was no English word which captured its meaning. He coined the word “loving-kindness” as its translation.
It is so hard to see kindness, civility or even decency in our political climate right now, especially in this election season. The death and funeral of John McCain gave us a glimpse of a sadly forgotten world of a statesman-like public service across party lines, with deep friendships from people in both parties. This was demonstrated by two former presidents from opposing parties coming together to eulogize and honor this man. We cannot allow religious, political and social differences to dehumanize the person with the other perspective. Of course it is immensely hard to hear opinions and beliefs that so offend us and our sense of justice and integrity, but in Mr. Rogers neighborhood, we still have to be kind to one another, to see that spirit of the Eternal in the person in front of us.
Brene Brown, in Braving the Wilderness, talks about “common enemy intimacy.” She says:
“We’ve simply started hanging out with people who hate the same people we hate. That’s not connection. That’s ‘you’re either with us or against us.’ That’s common enemy intimacy. I really don’t know you, nor am I invested in our relationship, but I do like that we hate the same people and have contempt for the same ideas.…When we come together under the false flag of common enemy intimacy, we amplify cynicism and diminish our collective worth.” (136)
So many parts of the world, not just here in the US, have become polarized societies with “us” and “them” dividing cultures in very frightening and familiar ways and definitely diminishing our worth as a civilization. Having a strong back and a soft front means that I stand for something, not against something, and that I approach all with kindness and love and the courage to be vulnerable. As we go into a new year with all the new commitments of how we want to show up in the world, let’s stand up for what we believe in with love, integrity and kindness, and bring them into this beautiful neighborhood.
The brilliant spiritual teacher and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to say:“When I was young I admired cleverness. Now that I am old I find I admire kindness more.” Let’s put kindness above cleverness, gentleness above wisdom, love above hate.
In a beautiful little book written for the young generation, who have been so inspiring in their activism this year for safer schools, a safer climate and more, His Holiness The Dalai Lama, calls for a revolution of compassion. If we each change ourselves, we change the world. The book, A Call for Revolution, stresses the urgency that demands that we take care of each other and of this burning planet.
“Do not think that the practice of altruism amounts to self-neglect or deprivation,” says the Dalai Lama. “On the contrary, you will find that by doing good to others you are doing good to yourself, thanks to the principle of interdependence. And so you will develop a serene, impartial temperament, and come to realize that egotism is against nature since it flies in the face of the fundamental reality of interdependence. I encourage you to become aware of how, in your own life, self-centeredness closes doors, while altruism opens them.”
Mr. Rogers said, “even though no human being is perfect, we always have the chance to bring what’s unique about us to live in a redeeming way.”
This is our chance, our moment, however old or young we are, or feel ourselves to be. We have to believe that we have something completely unique and special to offer the world this year for its healing and redemption. As the poet Mary Oliver asks at the end of her brilliant poem, The Summer Day, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
The real work of Yom Kippur can be hard and it can take us to some pretty dark places, but it is also joyful and rich in its ritual that gives us the real opportunity to soften our hearts and to celebrate the potential of our own becoming. HaRav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, who said “just as there is a vidui larah, a confession for the bad we have done, so too there is a vidui latov, a confession for the good. A person should also be joyous concerning the good he or she has done. It follows that just as there is a great benefit to self-improvement through confessing one’s sins, so is there great benefit to confessing one’s good deeds.” Based on this teaching, Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, New York, wrote an a positive vidui, based on the Ashamnu, written as an alphabetical acrostic.
אָהַבְנוּ, בֵּרַכְנוּ, גָּדַלְנוּ, דִִִּבַּרְנוּ יֹפִי
We have loved, we have blessed, we have grown, we have spoken positively.
הֶעֱלִינוּ, וְחַסְנוּ, זֵרַזְנוּ
We have raised up, we have shown compassion, we have acted enthusiastically,
חָמַלְנוּ, טִפַּחְנוּ אֱמֶת
We have been empathetic, we have cultivated truth,
יָעַצְנוּ טוֹב, כִּבַּדְנוּ, לָמַדְנוּ, מָחַלְנוּ
We have given good advice, we have respected, we have learned, we have forgiven,
נִחַמְנוּ, סָלַלְנוּ, עוֹרַרְנוּ
We have comforted, we have been creative, we have stirred,
פָּעַלְנוּ, צָדַקְנוּ, קִוִּינוּ לָאָרֶץ
We have been spiritual activists, we have been just, we have longed for Israel,
We have been merciful, we have given full effort,
תָּמַכְנוּ, תָּרַמְנוּ, תִּקַּנּוּ
We have supported, we have contributed, we have repaired.
Even though much of the work of Yom Kippur is our own and solitary, we need each other and we are interconnected, we strengthen each other to do this work. And it may just start with one word, one kind and encouraging word; dibarnu yofi, we have spoken positively. Mr. Rogers says, “imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person.”
So friends, shall we?
Let’s make the most of this beautiful day
Since we’re together, might as well say
Would you be my, could you be my
Won’t you be my neighbor?