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“I Like You Just the Way You Are”: The Torah of Mister Rogers

19 Sep

 

Mister Rogers teaching “I like you just the way you are” resonates on Yom Kippur.

This summer, I went into a time machine and took a trip back to my childhood. Well, it wasn’t exactly a time machine but rather the movie “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” The acclaimed film brought me back to the earliest years that I can remember when every day I would watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS. I’m the oldest of three children, and my youngest brother is 10 years younger than I am, so Mister Rogers was a fixture in my home until well into my teenage years. Mister Rogers not only felt like a neighbor. He felt like a member of the family. This year’s film was released on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the program during our climate of great discord and acrimony in our country. The film reintroduces us to Fred Rogers, who died in 2003, and highlights his example of decency that is needed today more than ever. 

The film’s title evokes one of Mister Rogers’ signature songs with which he began every program. (It’s a beautiful day… Won’t you please…) On every show he looked directly into the camera. It was as if he made eye contact with each viewer. We were his “television neighbors.” 

He invited us into his home and talked with us about feelings and everyday worries. He also addressed important issues of the day such as racial integration, divorce and even political assassination in honest, accessible ways that respected each child as a person. Mister Rogers’ response to national disasters reverberates for me every time we experience a hurricane, horrific violence or other tragedies.  “When I was a boy,” Mister Rogers said, “and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”

Fred Rogers was an ordained minister. While his program was not religious in nature, the underlying theme is that every human being is created in the divine image and that each person is special. He ended every program saying, “You always make each day a special day, by just your being you. There’s only one person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.” 

“I like you just the way you are.” That teaching may seem out of place on Yom Kippur. After all, isn’t today all about change? We tend to focus on how we screwed up rather than how good we are. Furthermore, most of us recognize Yom Kippur as a solemn day when we contemplate our fragility and mortality. We recall our departed loved ones in Yizkor, and we confess our sins in fear of the consequences if we don’t.  The positive psychology of Mr. Rogers might seem out of place. However, I believe the teaching of Fred Rogers is the essence of Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur is a joyous day. Yom Kippur affirms and celebrates life and cleanses us. When we confess “Ashamnu,” “We have sinned,” it is a hopeful reminder that we can renew ourselves. 

Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook, Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, took it a step further.  “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” (Rabbi Kook’s Commentary to Mishnah Ma’aser Sheni 5:10). Yes, Rav Kook says, pound your chests and say “Ashamnu,” we have sinned. But also don’t forget to say to yourself, “I like you just the way you are.”

Rav Kook was the Mister Rogers of his time. For him, reminding ourselves of our good deeds builds self-confidence to venture forward to improve ourselves, the Jewish people and the world.

Inspired by Rav Kook, Rabbi Avi Weiss recently composed a prayer that affirms life through noting our positive actions. It supplements the Ashamnu confessional that we say throughout the day to confess the things that we have done wrong. This version of the vidui confessional highlights the things we have done right.

אָהַבְנוּ, בֵּרַכְנוּ, גָּדַלְנוּ, דִִִּבַּרְנוּ  יֹפִי

We have loved, we have blessed, we have grown, we have spoken positively.

We have raised up, we have shown compassion, we have acted enthusiastically,

We have been empathetic, we have cultivated truth,

We have given good advice, we have respected, we have learned, we have forgiven,

We have comforted, we have been creative, we have stirred,

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.

The traditional Ashamnu has its place, but we also need Ahavnu. Voices from our tradition call on us not to be stuck in our mistakes but to emphasize and celebrate our true ability and potential. Fred Rogers lived and taught Ahavnu. His teaching, “I like you just the way you are,” guided us to see the good in ourselves and to recognize that we can help others in ways that others helped us. In his final years, Mister Rogers ended a commencement addresses with the following: 

“Anyone who has ever graduated from a college, anyone who has ever been able to sustain a good work has had at least one person—and often many—who believed in him or her. We just don’t get to be competent human beings without many different investments from others. In fact, from the time you were very little, you’ve had people who have smiled you into smiling, people who have talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving.” 

I would like to invite us to do what Mister Rogers asked graduating college students to do: On this important and holy day, let’s pause to think of special people in our lives. Some of them may be right here, some may be far away. Some may even be in heaven. They may be relatives, friends or chance acquaintances. No matter where they are, deep down we know they’ve wanted what was best for us. They’ve cared about us, even through their imperfections, and they encouraged us to be true to the best within us. Let’s take a few moments of silence to think about those people who have cared about us all along the way.

Whomever we’ve been thinking about, imagine how grateful they must be that during our silent times we remember how important they are to us. “It’s not the honors, prizes and fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls,” Mister Rogers said. “It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our lives from which we make our choices is very good stuff.” 

As we remember the lives of our departed and the lessons that they taught us, let us honor their memory by taking note of our own goodness that we strive to increase. With all of our faults, let us recognize our inner decency. Let us have the courage to say to our inner selves, “I like you just the way you are.” Let each one of us remember Ahavnu—we have loved, we can love, we WILL love; and through our combined efforts, may God grant each of us the strength to build this world with love. 

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