Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL
September 9, 2018
“L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux. The essential is invisible to the eyes.” Pardon my French pronunciation; it’s the underlying message that’s significant here. In the classic fable The Little Prince, this statement is the kernel of the fox’s secret that he shares with the prince. The phrase also was frequently cited by Fred Rogers as an essential quote that guided him through his life. He had it posted on the bulletin board of his office through much of his career.
To the fox in The Little Prince,and to Mr. Rogers, the meaning of the statement was crystal clear: we mustn’t worry only about the visible world around us, the things for which we can empirically evaluate our encounters and interactions. Rather, we should open ourselves to how objects, experiences, and people make us feel. Whenever possible, we should respond with love.
This was how Fred Rogers steered his life and his fifty-year-long career. It was evident not only in his television persona; most everyone who encountered Mr. Rogers during his life will tell you that his private persona was an echo of his public one. His character and his life’s work were examined recently in the beautiful documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Mr. Rogers constructed his neighborhood to be welcoming and loving to all- regardless of race, religion, gender, class, physical infirmity, or any other categorization that might typically have divided people. Though much of the narrative content of his show played out through the interactions of the puppets who inhabited his “neighborhood of make-believe,” Mr. Rogers showed us that his belief that we should treat others—and expect to be treated by others—with kindness and dignity was not a thing of make-believe, but was an attainable goal. As Mr. Rogers stated in the final commencement address he delivered, at Dartmouth College in 2002, “in the perspective of infinity, our differences are infinitesimal.”
As an ordained Presbyterian minister, Fred Rogers undoubtedly was inspired by his religious and scriptural tradition, including the so-called golden rule. The concept, of course, exists in Judaism as well. We find it articulated in the Torah as “V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha—love your neighbor as yourself.” In the Talmud, the precept is expanded upon by Rabbi Hillel, who taught it to a prospective convert as the essential kernel of our faith: “da’alach s’nei l’chav’rach lo ta’avid—what is hateful to you, do not do to any person.”But Fred Rogers passed in 2003, and in the absence of this strong advocate for kindness and compassion, it seems easy to forget how to behave in a neighborly fashion.
Last November, at the Thanksgiving program of the Interfaith Alliance of Champaign County, those assembled participated in the creation of a community art project. Envisioned by Reverend Leah Robberts-Mosser of Community United Church of Christ, and executed by Ann Rasmus of the University YMCA, the project consists of a woven “welcome mat” and a door. Hopefully, you noticed these items in our foyer as you entered Temple this evening. They’ve been on a “tour” of sorts to the various constituent congregations of the Interfaith Alliance as a way of communicating our interconnection to one another as neighbors in the C-U community. A number of messages of welcome and hope have already been written on the door; if you are so inclined, you are invited to add your own thoughts on any available portion of it.
Many of you know that I serve as the founding chairman of the Interfaith Alliance. I worked to organize this group (or re-organize it, depending on whom you ask) because I feel that the only way to construct a peaceful and welcoming community is to build bridges of understanding that transcend lines of race and gender and religion and class and sexual orientation and political affiliation and and and—well, you get the picture. In an era in which many who have been granted a bully pulpit are encouraging us to turn inward—to gather within familiar communities and only seek connections with those who act and behave and believe exactly as we do—it is important and refreshing for us to move out of these comfort zones and interact with others. To be sure, there will be ideological differences, and some will be painfully insurmountable. But in the five years that I have been doing this work in our community—and over the many years I did so in other places—I have found that the benefits far outweigh the risks and disappointments.
Every once in a while, there will be an occasion in our country or our community that draws people to seek out interactions with others. It can be something catastrophic such as the tragedy of September 11, 2001 or something celebratory such as our congregation’s annual Interfaith Seder. These events serve as catalysts to encourage us to emerge from the silos we construct around ourselves and build genuine bonds with others, despite our differences.
On occasion, I have spoken to non-Jewish groups and have learned that for many in attendance, I am the first Jew with whom they have had any sustained interaction. I have jokingly mentioned that I am going to start a side business: “Have Coffee with A Jew.” First of all, I like coffee! But second of all, such a venture would encourage conversations that just aren’t happening enough these days. When we break bread together (or share coffee together), we have the opportunity to better know one another. We can begin to appreciate one another’s needs, dreams, hopes, and fears, and we can learn how to better respond to them.
Throughout these High Holidays, we will hear the sound of the shofar. It serves as a sort of alarm, awakening us to the awesomeness of this season. But the shofar sounds not merely to remind us to make things good between ourselves and God; our tradition tells us that our words of praise and supplication that we will read from the machzorare sufficient to overcome any rifts in that relationship. The shofar also prompts us to examine and improve our interactions with our fellow human beings. The Mishnah clarifies what actions are expected from us:
Averot she bein adam lamakom,Yom HaKipurim y’kapeir; averot she bein adam la’chaveiro, ein Yom HaKipurim y’kapeir ad she-y’ratzeh et chaveiro…for sins against an individual and God, the Day of Atonement atones. But for sins of one person against one’s neighbor, the Day of Atonement does not atone, until one makes an effort to reconcile with his or her neighbor.
Our tradition emphasizes that we are called to be in relationship with our neighbors. We must work to include them, to interact meaningfully with them, and, yes, to love them—even if they do not return our overtures in a neighborly fashion. Even if the interactions are difficult or painful because differences appear to create a wide chasm that can’t possibly be bridged. Mr. Rogers taught, “Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like ‘struggle.’ To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now – and to go on caring even through times that may bring us pain.”
Fred Rogers opened each episode of his program with the musical query, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” In the documentary, he remarks on this lyric, noting, “Well, I suppose it’s an invitation. It’s an invitation for somebody to be close to you.” In his later works, Mr. Rogers elaborates on this thought, writing, “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.”
François Scarborough Clemmons won a Metropolitan Opera audition in 1968 and joined their studio. Fred Rogers heard Clemmons sing and invited him to have a role on his show. Clemmons became one of the first African Americans to have a recurring role on a children’s television program. Moreover, recognizing that African American children might be fearful of law enforcement personnel, Mr. Rogers made a conscious decision to have François portray Officer Clemmons, and to show that police and other authority figures were friendly and trustworthy. In a now-iconic scene, Mr. Rogers invited Officer Clemmons to soak his feet with him in a small kiddie pool. The image of the two men sharing this fairly intimate moment broke some racial and cultural taboos and undoubtedly left an indelible positive impression on young viewers. Rogers clearly understood the power of this scene, as he recreated it nearly 25 years later as he wrapped up his program.
Another member of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, Jeffrey Erlanger, had surgery at seven months old to remove a spinal tumor. The surgery was successful in removing the tumor, but left him a quadriplegic. Jeff became, even at a young age, and advocate for disability rights and awareness. He befriended Mr. Rogers and appeared on his show in 1981 when he was ten years old. Together they sang Mr. Rogers’ original song, “It’s You I Like.” The lyrics to the song encouraged viewers not to focus on outward appearances (such as Jeffrey’s wheelchair) but on the inner qualities that an individual has to offer. Rogers often referred to the segment with Jeffrey Erlanger as his favorite episode.
In his interactions with Clemmons and with Erlanger, Fred Rogers showed the young people in his audience how to appreciate and embrace the innate value of every person. As he would later write, “As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has—or ever will have—something inside that is unique to all time.”
If we challenge ourselves to be good neighbors, to recognize the unique, innate, God-given qualities that reside within each individual, then we can help to increase kindness and gentleness and love in our world. This valuable practice should not merely extend to others in our community; we can (and should) also strive to build this neighborly practice among all those who choose Sinai Temple as their spiritual home. We are a diverse community, drawing families and individuals from a variety of backgrounds. It is incumbent upon us all to ensure that Sinai retains its character as a warm and welcoming environment. This is part of what can be achieved through the Y’sod Le’Atid – Foundation for the Future—renovation project. The project will focus deliberate attention not only on creating an aesthetically pleasing space that will serve our community for the myriad of functions that take place within these walls, it will also consider the theme of accessibility. The reimagined spaces in the sanctuary and pod will continue to evoke a sense of spirituality, and will also be designed to promote visibility, superior acoustics, and easier physical access. In this manner, we will ensure that Sinai is a comfortable place for all the Jews of East Central Illinois who choose to engage with us.
Whether our outreach is to our fellow Jews, or whether we extend our hands and hearts in friendship toward other neighbors in our community, we are blessed to have these opportunities to brighten our world by treating others with kindness, love, and dignity. As we enter these High Holy Days, this is work which can truly reward our spirits. Fred Rogers asserted, “appreciation is a holy thing, that when we look for what's best in the person we happen to be with at the moment, we're doing what God does; so in appreciating our neighbor, we're participating in something truly sacred.”
In the weeks and months ahead, I encourage you to build upon the sanctity of this day by carrying a neighborly attitude forward among your friends and neighbors. For those of you who grew up with Mr. Rogers, or watched your children, grandchildren, or other young people in your life be welcomed into his neighborhood and be transformed by his message—try to recapture those feelings. Embrace the notion that a simple kind gesture can make a world of difference for someone. As the adage states, “They may forget what you said—but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
Fred Rogers asserted, “The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they're loved and capable of loving.” This is our neighborly responsibility. Let the shofar awaken us to this challenge and this possibility. If we can live by these tenets, if we can take the lessons promoted by Fred Rogers and incorporate them into our daily behavior, then every day can be a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
Saint-Exupéry, Antoine. The Little Prince, Chapter 21.
Referenced, for instance, in Fred Rogers’ commencement address at Dartmouth College in 2002.
Directed by Morgan Neville, released in 2018 by Focus Features.
Address delivered at Dartmouth College, 2002
Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a
Mishnah Yoma 8:9
Rogers, Fred. You Are Special: Words of Wisdom for All Ages from a Beloved Neighbor. (New York: Penguin Books, 1995). p. 21
As stated by Fred Rogers in archival footage appearing in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” directed by Morgan Neville
Rogers, Fred. Wisdom from the World According to Mr. Rogers: Important Things to Remember(White Plains, NY: Peter Pauper Press, Inc., 2003) p. 92
A clip of this scene can be seen at Retrieved August 16, 2018.
A clip from this episode can be seen at Retrieved August 16, 2018.
Rogers, Fred. You are Special: Neighborly Wit and Wisdom from Mister Rogers.(Philadelphia: Running Press, 2002).
Commencement address at Middlebury College, May, 2001. Retrieved from on August 22, 2018
An investigation by quoteinvestigator.com ascribes this quote to Carl W. Buehner, an official in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. See for the full details, including the history of the quote’s erroneous attribution to poet Maya Angelou. This page was retrieved on August 22, 2018
From the 2003 television documentary, “Fred Rogers: America’s Favorite Neighbor.”