Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 11/30/19 –

     Who could have imagined that more than a half century after the very first episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted – on February 19th, 1968 – that Fred Rogers would be a virtually ubiquitous personality.  With not one, but two major movies about his life, the most recent starring Tom Hanks; with article after article and op ed piece after op ed piece, Fred Rogers – now 16 years after his death – has suddenly become one of the most thought about and prominent public figures in the country.  

     On the surface this is an odd phenomenon, to say the least.  I am guessing most of the people in the room this morning remember Mr. Rogers.  Soft spoken and gentle, kind and caring, sneaker and red sweater wearing, his TV show ran for 31 seasons, influencing generation after generation of children as they grew up and watched TV during their formative years.  A child of the late 60s and early 70s, I remember settling in front of an old black and white TV with a screen smaller than the screen I currently use for my computer, and watching Fred Rogers spin his stories, relating life lessons, unpacking issues like anger and sadness, and in his gentle way teaching moral and ethical principles that could help you to be a better person, the kind of person your parents and grandparents clearly thought you should be.

     Mr. Rogers died only a couple of years after his show went off the air.  The TV episodes were still on, replayed usually as part of the early morning PBS schedule, but the person of Fred Rogers entered a sort of quiescent period.  He was remembered, but mostly in a  nostalgic way, the way we remember with fondness a time in our lives – or in the life of our country – with a golden sheen.  Fifteen years ago – probably even ten years ago – if someone had told you there would be two major motion pictures made about the life of Fred Rogers, you probably would not have taken that person’s investment advice.  And yet here we are.  Fred Rogers is so popular right now that there is even an article about his wife – whose name is?  Joanne!  – in yesterday’s New York Times.  She is still alive, and in good health, God bless her.

     I’ve always believed we create the hero we need at the time when we need him – or her – and evidently at this contentious time in our country there is a sense that we need Fred Rogers.  Maybe it is the soothing tone of his voice during a time when people, especially public figures, seem to mostly yell at each other.  We might be attracted to his calm demeanor when everything, and everyone, seems to be so frantic.  Perhaps it has to do with the way he listens in an age when all anyone seems to want to do is talk.  Or maybe it is his fundamental and unshakable optimism that appeals to us, when so much of the world seems dark and hope is hard to come by.  Most likely it is some combination of all of these things.  We are living in unsettled times, and Fred Rogers had a way of making us believe everything would be OK, and reminding us that at the end of the day, we can trust one another. 

     I know that evidence often seems to be to the contrary.  Forget about our country and the deepening divisions that we see everywhere, whether racial or political or economic or otherwise.  All you have to do is take a cursory glance through this morning’s Torah portion to remember how difficult we humans can be, even to the people closest to us.  This morning’s reading contains some of the Bible’s best known stories, all of them focusing on the family of Isaac and Rebecca, and their sons – what are their names?  Esau and Jacob!  

     I imagine you know the narrative well.  It begins with one of the most fundamental of all parenting mistakes, namely one parent favoring one child, while another parent favors the other child.  In this case it is Rebecca who loves her son Jacob but doesn’t care much for his older brother Esau.  But just to make sure things in the family are truly impossible, Isaac does the same thing in reverse, always proud of and talking about Esau, but seemingly not too fond of Jacob.  If you’ve ever known a family like this, you know this is a recipe for disaster, and that is in fact what ensues.  By the time this morning’s reading is done Jacob has deceived his older brother Esau into selling him the family birthright.  Then Isaac tells a group of men that his wife Rebecca is his sister, putting her in a very uncomfortable position, to say the least.  And if you thought things couldn’t get any worse, the portion ends with Rebecca and Jacob, mother and son, hatching a plot to trick Isaac, their husband and father, into giving the family inheritance to Jacob.  

     And you thought Washington DC was bad.

     Of course the sad truth is that people do nasty things to one another all the time.  Cheat, steal, and lie.  Betray.  Physically harm one another.  The list could go on and on, but you get the point.  It is not always easy for us – and in fact sometimes it is quite difficult – to treat one another the way God wants us to.  To respect one another, care for each other, help and support one another,  sacrifice for one another, give one another the benefit of the doubt.  To live honestly and admirably, and to regularly ask, paraphrasing JFK, not what others can do for us, but what we can do for them.  You see, the Torah lays out the very worst human behavior in front of us, because once you see the worst you have a deeper appreciation for how important it is to strive to be the best.

     Mr. Rogers came at that idea from the other way around.  He also wanted to show us that we should strive to be the best we can be, but he illustrated that by focusing on the positive.  It wasn’t that he denied the difficulties of human nature.  He acknowledged that people make mistakes, hurt others, and fall short on a regular basis.  But in Fred Rogers world that moment of failure was seen as the beginning of something better.  Growing, changing, understanding more deeply, and figuring out how, the next time around, to do it right.

     And I think that is why – at least one of the reasons why – Mr. Rogers is at the front of the national consciousness these days.  We are getting tired of all the negativity.  And we like seeing the spirit of a person who said, over and over again, there is a better way, and you can, with a little help from your friends, figure out what it is.  What was the name of Fred Roger’s show?  Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood!  I am sure the choice of the word neighborhood is very intentional – a place filled with all kinds of people, and animals, different backgrounds and ethnicities, but working for a common goal.  

     Anyone happen to know the Hebrew word for neighborhood?  שכונה – it comes from the root that means ‘to dwell.’  So the שכונה is the place where people dwell together.  And of course if you just change one letter  – take that ‘vav’, and make it a ‘yud’ – you have what?  שכינה – one of the names we use for God, a name that reminds us particularly of God’s sheltering presence.  The sense seems to be that when we dwell together – truly, not just in place but in spirit – God’s presence is brought into our world.  Mr. Rogers spent his life teaching children – and maybe all of us – that that kind of world is not only ideal, it can be real.  His job was to teach us that lesson – and the rest is up to us.

Author: Steve Schwartz

Husband, father of three, Deadhead, and rabbi. I am now in my 22nd year of serving a large congregation in the Baltimore area.

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