Love Yourself AND Your Neighbor - Yom Kippur 2018/5779

Love Yourself AND Your Neighbor©
Rabbi David Baum
Yom Kippur 2018/5779
Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

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 beautywood,
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 mine?
Could you be mine?
Won't you be my neighbor?
Won't you please,
Won't you please,
Please won't you be my neighbor?

For many of you, it has probably been years since you heard that tune.  Fred Rogers started a children’s show called Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood which aired from 1968 until 2001, airing for 31 years, it is the second longest running children’s show in the history of American television.  This year, Fred Rogers, who passed away in 2003 at the age of 75, became famous again as a result of the hit documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor.  

I have to admit, I didn’t put much stock into Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood when I was a young boy watching it – I didn’t think there were any deep lessons to be learned, but as I watched the movie about Fred Roger's I realized that there was a lot more to Fred Roger's than I thought.  He taught deep lessons about life, about love, and about the decency that is inherent in humanity.  

They might have been simple lessons, but the simplest lessons in life are also the deepest and most important.  

The more I thought about Fred Rogers, the more I realized that we actually have Fred Rogers in our tradition.  They are often times overlooked, but they have made a profound difference for us, and their stories need to be told. 

So today, I'd like to share the lessons I learned from Fred Rogers, and two figures whom I think lived and taught just as he did – Aaron the High Priest, and Hillel the Elder.  

They taught us important lessons – all of them taught us about the importance and power of love.  

They taught us the importance of loving ourselves

They taught us about loving others

And they taught us how to act toward our neighbors

Every day, Mr. Rogers would go for a rigorous swim, and when he got on the scale after, he would always smile.  I mean, who smiles when they get on their scale every day?  He smiled because the same number popped up every day – 143. 1 = I, 4 = Love, 3 =You – I love you.  To Mr. Rogers, love was the cornerstone of his life and the world. 

He made a profound statement that I think relates to today:  “The only thing that ever really changes the world is when someone gets the idea that love can abound and can be shared.”  

Today, believe it or not, is actually the happiest day of the year – it is a day defined by love.  The Mishnah (Ta'anit 5:4) tells us that the two happiest days of the year were Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur.  On Tu B’Av, the 15th of Av, the daughters of Jerusalem would go out into the fields, dressed in white borrowed garments, and find spouses.  It was a day of love.  It makes sense that this was one of the happiest days of the year, but Yom Kippur?  Finding a partner with bad breath and no deodorant doesn’t exactly sound like a good time.  But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about the idea that we are supposed to fall in love with someone today – ourselves.  

There’s a reason for it, and it’s not selfish at all.  In the book of Leviticus, the rabbis say that this line is the center of the Torah:  

 וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי יְי׃ 
Love your neighbor as you love yourself.  I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:17)

But if you don’t love yourself, how can you love your neighbor?

I know what you might be thinking, Rabbi, we need to love ourselves more?  In the age of social media, of selfie's and YouTube, we think that we live in the age when everyone is too in love with themselves.  But, if we look closer, we realize that our social media accounts are the masks we wear.  I think it hides things about ourselves that we don't want to show the world, or even admit to ourselves.  

Our Rabbis compared Purim with Yom Ha-ki-Purim, a day that is like Purim.  On both days, we dress up – on Purim, we dress as others not ourselves, but on Yom Kippur, we wear simple, white garments which is unlike us most of the year.  Today, we take off the masks we may wear during the year on this day of self-reflection. 

Today we remove the earthly things that hold us back.  We abstain from eating and drinking, from anointing ourselves with oil and perfumes, from bathing, from having marital relations, from wearing leather soled shoes.  Because today is about loving who you truly are, the way God made you.

You are not defined by the foods you eat
You are not defined by the oils and perfumes you wear – your smell
You are not defined by the clothes you wear, no matter how fancy or cheap
Nor are you defined by your fancy leather shoes
You are not defined by anything or anyone else but yourself

Today, we stand before God, and ourselves – as souls.  

Mr. Rogers was criticized later in his life for causing society's obsession with the self.  He was criticized for teaching that you didn’t have to do anything to be loved.  He countered those criticisms at a commencement address he gave at Dartmouth, the last one of his life:  “What does it mean that you are special?  What it means is that you don’t have to do anything sensational for people to love you.”  Fred Rogers tapped into something really deep here – it is the essential element of both Judaism and the religions that came from Judaism – that you are endowed by your creator with good because you were created in the Image of God, Betzelem Elohim.  But it doesn't mean we are perfect.  

When humanity was created on the sixth day of creation, God looks at God's creation and says: says the following: V'Hinei Tov Meod – he found it very good (Genesis 1:31).  

Meod, very good, is only used once in the entire narrative.  What was 'very' good about humanity?  

Abravanel, a famous medieval commentator, says something really interesting about this line – God found us ‘very good’ despite what God knew would eventually happen.

God knew that we would let God down – God knew that when God created Adam and Eve, they would not be in the garden forever.  God knew that once we were created, we had a mind of our own, and we would make mistakes.  And yet, God still loves us, despite our shortcomings.  Like a parent, God might be disappointed, but God always loves us.  

On Shabbat Shuvah, we had a very special guest speaker, Rabbi Mark Rotenberg.  Rabbi Rotenberg is a recovery rabbi, meaning, he serves those in drug and alcohol recovery, but he's also in recovery himself.  He spoke about the difference between guilt and shame, and coming to term with our past deeds.  He said it is essential for us to take ownership over our hurtful actions, to others, and ourselves.  Guilt over our past deeds can help us, but shame is our downfall.  When we feel shame, we think our worst deeds are who we are.  Shame leads us to give up on ourselves, and then, the rest of the world, especially, our neighbors.  

He told us that shame makes you hide your demons, while guilt makes you confront them.  The fourth and fifth step in the 12 step program are the following – one must make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, and one must admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.  

Yom Kippur, our public confessions, and the atonement we receive after Tesuvah, repentance, is our ultimate gift.  This is our path to loving ourselves as we truly are, not the masks we cover ourselves with during the year.  

Only once we love ourselves can we begin to love others.  

When I think about loving our neighbors, I think of two great figures in Jewish history:  Aaron the High Priest, and Hillel the Elder.  Aaron is often overshadowed by his little brother Moses.  The Torah might be Moses's five books, but when it came to who was more loved by the people, it was Aaron.  

The Torah records that when Aaron died, the entire House of Israel wept for thirty days (Numbers 20:29), but when Moses died, only the men wept.  Moses was the judge – he sought truth, and he often rebuked the people when they let God down.  But Aaron never said to the people, “you acted offensively!”  He sought peace, even with the wicked.  When he would walk along the road and meet a wicked person, he greeted that person warmly.  It had an effect on people, especially the wicked.  The Midrash says that when that wicked person whom Aaron greeted was about to commit a sin the next day, he would think to himself, “how could I ever look up and make eye contact with Aaron, the man who greeted me so warmly, who saw something in me that I didn't even see in myself?”  And the man would stop himself from sinning.  

Aaron made peace between people who fought with each other.  He would sit with one party and say, “My son, look how your friend beats his breast and tears his hair out, and says, 'how can I raise my eyes and face to my friend?  I would be too embarrassed, because I acted so offensively toward him...”  He would then sit with that person until they removed hate from their heart.  Aaron would go to his enemy and say the exact same thing to him.  Later on, the men would forgive each other, and when they met, they would embrace each other as brothers.  And that is why the entire house of Israel wept for Aaron.  

The late 1960's was a time of great upheaval in our country and the world.  We were in a war that seemed to have no end, and made no sense.  Our citizens were losing faith in our leaders, in our own government.  Our greatest and most visionary leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, were assassinated in front of our eyes.  Our citizens were angry and fighting each other.  That is when Mr. Roger's began his career, during one of the most tumultuous times in our history.  He saw television, especially children's television, as feeding the fires.  Roger's saw children's television, people throwing pies in each other faces, acting crudely toward each other, and thought, why is this wonderful tool, television, being used this way?  He said, “They could not care less about what that cartoon is saying to the child about such things as human dignity.”

I think this was his way of making a difference in our country, in the world – by helping our children cope with a seemingly violent and unforgiving world.  The 60's was the height of the civil rights struggle for African Americans in our country.  In the summer of 1969, when white racists were disrupting efforts to integrate the nation’s swimming pools, pouring bleach into pools while children swam in them, Mr. Rogers invited the African-American actor Francois Clemons, who played the character Officer Clemons on the show, to sit together and dip their feet together in a small pool on a hot day.  Like Aaron the High Priest in the Midrash, Mr. Roger's showed his viewers a different way of acting. I'm sure there were parents who might have acted dishonorably toward African-Americans who watched that show, and thought twice about how they would act in the future.  

He fought rage with calm, hate with love, just like Aaron.  

It seems we are constantly trying to change the minds of those who think differently than us by yelling at them, but is that really how we should be acting?  Will that really bring about change?  

This brings me to my last role model for the day – Hillel the elder.  Hillel and another great rabbi named Shammai were two men, who led two academies, argued with each other about Jewish law, ethics and theology.  Many of us know the story of the convert who came to Hillel and Shammai asking them to teach him the entire Torah on one foot, but I found a different version of the story that I wanted to share.  

The story, found in a rabbinic work called Avot D'Rabbi Natan, says that one day, a non-Jew went to Shammai and said, “I want you to convert me under the condition that you appoint me the Kohen Gadol.”  

Shammai looks at him and screams:  “Do you think the Jewish people need a convert who comes with no more than his staff and bag to officiate as Cohen Gadol?!?”  Then he throws him out.  

So the non-Jew goes to Hillel with the same request.  Hillel tells him to sit down, and he tells him the following, “If you want to be the Cohen Gadol, you are going to learn how to prepare the lights of the Menorah, how to offer the sacrifices on the Altar, how to arrange the wood for the sacrifices...we've got a lot of learning to do.  But first, let's begin with the Alef-Bet.”  Then, Hillel taught him the Torah starting with the book of Leviticus which contains the story and laws of the Cohanim.  Then they came to a verse:  “Anyone who is not a Cohen that comes close to the altar shall die.”  The convert suddenly realized something – if that is true of someone who is Jewish but not a Cohen, then how much the more so does this apply to me.  And the man says to Hillel, “May all the blessing of the Torah rest on your head.  Had you been like Shammai the Elder I would not have entered the community of Israel.  The quick temper of Shammai almost caused me to perish from this world and the world to come.  Your patience brought me to life in the World to Come.”  

I heard the following story from Rabbi Sharon Brous about her first college dorm room roommate – her neighbor: 

I was 18 years old with a dream summer internship, living in dorms packed with socially and politically savvy college students from around the country. My roommate was coming a week late, and I eagerly anticipated her arrival, certain we’d become best friends instantaneously. Way too early one morning, there was a knock on my door. “Hi. I’m your roommate” she said perfunctorily, and walked right past me. “Great to meet you!” I said, “Where are you working this summer?” No answer. “Have you been to DC before?”

I asked, as she made herself busy placing her precious few items on shelves. Still no answer. “There’re some great people on our floor – I’d love to introduce you …” She wouldn’t even make eye contact with me! Feeling pathetic and a bit embarrassed by my outpouring of kindness in the face of her complete disinterest, I turned around and walked out of the room – this was going to be the worst summer of my life. Should I try to switch rooms? Just pack up and head back to New York? I avoided the dorms until about 11:30 that night, and when I finally returned I was relieved to see that my nightmare roommate was asleep. As I crumpled into bed I noticed that there was a note on my pillow. “I’m so sorry we didn’t have time to talk today. My name is Cathy, and I’m working on the Hill. I just want to let you know that I’m deaf, so if I’m not looking directly at you,

I won’t know that you’re talking to me. Please be patient with me – it’s always awkward when I meet new people. By the way, I saw that you’re reading Invisible Man – that’s my favorite book! Can’t wait to get to know you this summer.”

Al chet she’chatanu l’fanekha – for the sin that I committed before You, by assuming the worst of Your children, please forgive me.”

We are living in divisive and ugly times.  Instead of watching cartoons as kids, we now watch news channels that are on 24 hours a day, filled with angry voices, voices that show us the worst of ourselves.  They aren't who we are.  

I wish Aaron the High Priest could be here to help bring us together when we fight about politics; I wish Hillel the Elder were here to teach us to have patience with our fellow human being and give them the benefit of the doubt; I wish Fred Rogers were here to tell us that each one of us is special, we don’t have to do anything sensational for people to love us.  

But maybe they here...

Rabbi Israel Salanter created the Mussar movement, a movement based on Jewish ethics, when he saw that his followers might have been following the laws of Kashrut, but were acting like animals toward each other.  He famously said, “When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world . . . Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself . . . But I’ve come to recognize that if long ago I had started with myself, then I could have made an impact on my family. And, my family and I could have made an impact on our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country, and we could all indeed have changed the world.”  

I wondered to myself – does this Mr. Roger's Neighborhood still stand up to the test of time?  My kids watch shows with exciting graphics, hilarious scripts, would they sit through an episode with the soft spoken Fred Rogers and his puppets?  The answer was yes, not only did they sit through an episode, but they wanted more.  Kindness, love, civility, decency, and peace – they are timeless, they never get old fashioned.  

Aaron, Hillel, and Fred Rogers are our better selves, they are in us, they are waiting to come out.  My blessing for us on this day, the day when we see our true selves, is that we love ourselves, despite our shortcomings.  My blessing is for us is that we love our neighbors, that we give them the benefit of the doubt, that we have patience with them, and my blessing for us is that we change the world by changing ourselves.  

Gmar Chatimah Tovah – May we all be sealed and inscribed in the book of life.  


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