This summer, Adam and I went to see the new documentary on Mr. Rogers: Won’t you be my neighbor? If you’re not familiar with Mr. Rogers, he was the creator, writer, and producer of the magical television show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood that he introduced to his local TV station as a countercultural gesture in contrast to the cartoonishly violent, fast-paced children’s shows available at the time.
As soon as the show began, Mr. Rogers would invite you into his home, asking you to be his neighbor. He would address an idea or experience common for young children, such as going to school for the first time, making friends, or understanding why grownups sometimes got angry. He would acknowledge and validate the entire range of emotion, he would remind children that each and every one of them was special and valuable and loved. Mr. Rogers often said that the most important work is to teach children how to identify and address their emotions—in his words—“to help children through the modulations of life.”
Mr. Rogers’ best kept-secret was that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister. He was trained to be an evangelist television preacher. But he reinvented his particular calling, in favor of an entirely universal, safe place on television. He wanted to be a steady and trusted presence for all children, regardless of religious identity. And so, through a kind of love that children and parents had never quite seen before on TV, he became the visionary voice of emotional honesty and radical compassion, with the strength of tradition and faith in God behind him.
When white supremacists fought against racial integration, Mr. Rogers invited his friend, a black policeman named Officer Clemmons, to join him as he bathed his feet in cool water. Outside the world of Mr. Rogers, racists threw bleach into swimming pools to harm black families who were enjoying a sunny day with their kids. But in Mr. Roger’s neighborhood, a white man and a black man each put his feet in the pool, and the white man washed the black man’s feet.
When misunderstanding and intolerance prevented many Americans from empathizing with children with special needs, Mr. Rogers invited a young boy named Jeff to come on the show, who survived brain cancer at seven months old, but the surgery to remove the tumor left him with ongoing challenges. Outside Mr. Roger’s neighborhood, Jeff faced ridicule and isolation, but on Mr. Roger’s front stoop, he was just like everyone else. Mr. Rogers gave him space to tell his story, to show off his impressive electric wheelchair, and ultimately sang a song with him about what gives a person value. It’s not the clothes you wear or the way you style your hair, but you, it’s what’s inside you, I like, sang Mr. Rogers.
At this point in the film, I noticed that both Adam and I were not just tearing up, we were sobbing. Tears were running freely down my face. And then I looked around, hearing sniffles all around me, and I saw that each person in the theater with us that day was similarly affected.
And in the weeks following, I’ve been asking myself: why was this documentary so evocative? Why did it elicit such a profound emotional response from our theater (and based on reviews that I read, from many other theaters around the nation)?
Part of it, I’m sure, was wistfulness. Though we all, of course, yearn for a world in which this sort of kindness is written into all of our interactions, I think many of us had gotten to a point where we didn’t believe it could really happen. So that we wouldn’t have this expectation of radical kindness, instead we just wrote off the possibility. To encounter such an acute demonstration of compassion was so overwhelming that we couldn’t help but weep.
But the other part of it, I think, is the repercussion that we all suffer when we decide—intentionally or not—that our society is incapable of such expressions of kindness. We harden ourselves. We build a wall around our hearts, a fortress that will not leave us vulnerable to the failings of those around us. We don’t expect compassion, so we convince ourselves that we don’t need it.
And furthermore, for many of us Jews, we don’t have to imagine a world that refuses to engage in compassionate encounters—we’ve actually been the victims of anti-Semitic behavior and rhetoric. Some of us actually lived through the horrors of the Shoah, a world that refused to see our humanity. My own great-grandmother was murdered in the extermination camp at Sobibor. We remember that the US rejected shiploads of our people during WW2 because they’d already hit the quota for Jews, choosing instead to send our brethren to their deaths. Today, astonishingly, we’re seeing an uptick of vandalism in synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. Even my parents’ shul in Indianapolis was the target of an attack this summer. And a few weeks ago, we hosted the Federation as they trained community leaders on how to contend with active shooter and terror scenarios as part of our high holiday preparation.
After our body suffers a trauma, it sets off an automatic response: to build scar tissue around the affected site. Biologically, it makes perfect sense. Our body is designed to protect organs that have been weakened from damage or exposure so that we don’t experience further injury. So it quickly weaves collagen together, to create a thicker wall between the wound and the elements.
But what we often don’t take into consideration is that scar tissue can also be harmful, even deadly. The hastily constructed cells offer less protection from UV rays and lower levels of elasticity. After a heart attack, newly formed scar tissue on the cardiac muscle can lead to dangerous stiffening and even heart failure.
My fear today, is that our collective trauma—exacerbated by the polarization of our societal rhetoric—has caused scar tissue to build around our hearts. Not physical scar tissue—but emotional, psychological scar tissue. I fear that our insecurities, our anxieties, our biases, have set off this automatic response to protect us from further damage, reinforcing our instinctual response to lay low and out of sight. But its effects are alarming:
How has our scar tissue affected our ability to both give and receive compassion? How have we hardened our hearts to the plight of the widow and the orphan and the stranger? How has our trauma convinced us to turn inward and ignore both the humanity and the suffering of those around us?
Our tradition shows us what is at stake if we continue to allow scar tissue to build around our heart: we become Pharaoh.
Because of his prejudices, his fear, his insecurity, he saw the growing Israelite nation as an existential threat to the health of the Egyptian empire. The Torah tells us: a new king rose over Egypt who did not know Joseph, and as a result, this new king had no idea why this quickly multiplying nation of foreigners should continue to thrive in his land. But it’s the language that this Pharaoh uses that makes it clear how he regarded our ancestors: uvnei yisrael paru vayishretzu vayirbu vayaamtzu bimeod meod, vatimaleh haaretz otam. The children of Israel multiplied, (three different ways) very greatly, and the land was filled with them. But this great abundance, this miraculous fertility, was sinister to the Pharaoh. Paru, they gave birth to six children at once because they were like dogs, or rats. Vayishretzu: they swarmed, like reptiles. Vatimaleh haaretz: they filled the earth like a plague of locusts.
So therefore, Pharaoh said, we must deal shrewdly with them, limiting their ability to keep reproducing at this rate, lest they outnumber us. Let us inflict calculated measures of oppression upon them so that they are too weak to rise up.
Pharaoh’s legacy—though he wanted it to be one of steady authority and strategic subjugation—in reality, is one of callousness, of stone-heartedness. He regarded our ancestors as less than human. And once you allow yourself to take that step, any mode of persecution immediately becomes more palatable.
How many times throughout the generations have we heard merciless politicians defend the use of concentration camps, systematized cruelty, torture, and family separation, because they see their victims as animals—animals that don’t deserve their compassion? This mindset awaits us if we do not act now, if we do not break open the scar that protects our heart. Because, truly, what separates us from the animals IS our ability to empathize, to summon our compassion. If we lose sight of the most fundamental idea in the torah—that each person is created in the image of God and therefore deserves to be treated with dignity—then we have lost sight of what it means to be human and what it means to be Jewish. Are we scared to tear down our heart-fortresses, because we’re afraid of what we might feel? Are we afraid of the truths we might uncover?
It is fear, it is pain, it is loss, that remind us who and what we are. It is these experiences of fragility and vulnerability that remind us what is at stake if we forget what we share with every other person that walks this earth.
And so, Moses instructs us in the book of Deuteronomy: umaltem et orlat levavchem. Circumcise/cut away the thickening around your hearts. Remove that which prevents the cry of the stranger, the needs of the poor, and the tears of children from stirring you to action. Ve’orp’chem lo takshu od, reject your instinct to be a stiff-necked people, a condition that causes you to turn your back on your God and your world.
We can’t stop there. I can’t stand up here on Rosh Hashanah, talk about how we’ve neglected our responsibility to be compassionate, and tell you that my message this year is to exercise unbridled empathy and infinite grace, even though that might make for a more beautiful sermon. Ki hinei yom hadim, for today is the Day of Judgment, and to idealize a world that is all mercy and no judgment is irresponsible.
Just as it is anathema to both human nature and to Judaism to live without compassion, to forget each individual’s divine origins, it’s also unreasonable to create a society in which people are not held to particular standards of behavior, in which repercussions are nonexistent.
There is a reason why we needed that briefing from the Federation on active shooters and terror scenarios. There is a reason why we sometimes approach the world with trepidation. There is a reason why the bleeding heart liberal (the opposite of our stone-hearted Pharaoh) needs to keep his heart open to the possibility that his own prioritization of the needs of the Other, or of those who are marginalized in our society, ignores the needs of those most immediately in his midst.
And so, in order to survive with both our lives and our empathy intact, we must open ourselves to wisdom from both dinand rachamim, justice and mercy.
The midrash in Genesis Rabbah tells us: Upon setting out to create the world, God thought: If I create the world through my attribute of mercy, then sinners will be plentiful; if I create the world through my attribute of justice, then how will the world endure?
If God had animated only the divine attribute of mercy in creating the world, then our actions wouldn’t have consequences. There is nothing that anyone could do that would disqualify them from the Book of Life, so long as they confessed to their sins and promised to do better. But these promises carry no weight, if there is no justice, because we would never be forced to grapple with the consequences of our actions. When we operate only through the lens of compassion and mercy, we leave ourselves too vulnerable to the evil forces that exist in the world, too exposed to the ones who would take advantage of our radical kindness, and we allow for people to act with impunity.
But if God had animated only the divine attribute of justice in creating the world, then only perfection would be tolerated. No mistakes, no trial and error, no risk-taking could ever lead to new discoveries that help the human race to evolve. Our hearts would be closed, we would be too scared to venture out into the unknown, too anxious to open ourselves to those who are different from us. When we operate only through the lens of judgment, we close ourselves off to the unpredictable potential and growth that lies just beyond the horizon. We decide that it’s better to stay within the bounds of the predictable and safe, and for that reason, we refuse to open our hearts to anything else.
What would it look like, to combine these two attributes of mercy and judgment?
I’m not advocating a happy medium; sometimes finding the compromise leaves us absolutely nowhere.
Rather, I’m advocating a new approach to the way we react to issues in our world. If you only respond through the attribute of justice, open your heart to the possibility of mercy. If you only respond through the attribute of mercy, open your heart to the possibility of justice. Just as God required both of these attributes to create the world, so too must we draw from both of them when we imagine our responsibilities as humans and as Jews.
For example: if you believe that separating children from parents at our border is a necessary precaution in order to uphold our immigration laws and maintain our security, did you consider the long-term effect that this trauma will have on these children for decades to come, or did you consider the profound dangers that these parents were facing in their home countries that forced them to seek refuge here? On the other hand, if you believe that ICE border patrol agents were taking advantage of their power to subjugate children and families, could you also consider the purpose of their position to begin with—to maintain the safety of American citizens and enforce justice at our border?
Or: if you believe that poverty is a choice, that those who are homeless are lazy and content to rely on government handouts, have you also considered that there are powerful circumstances beyond their control—root causes in the system that basically determine one’s socioeconomic narrative even before they’re born? On the other hand, if you believe that we must do everything in our power to make sure each and every person must have unconditional access to food, shelter, and healthcare, might you also consider the fact that we don’t have infinite funds, and that those who are the recipients of our help must also live up to certain standards of behavior, employment, and accountability?
If you believe that each and every American has the right to own guns—a right promised to us by the Constitution—have you listened to the stories of countless numbers of children in our country who are afraid to go to school lest they get shot, or the cries of parents who pray after dropoff that they’ll see their kid at the end of the day? On the other hand, if you believe that no one should be able to own a gun, or that access to guns should be granted only to law enforcement and the military, have you considered those who protect this right fiercely because their own experience teaches them that they must? That their own lives or the lives of their loved ones were saved because they had access to a firearm?
Living in a world that was created with both din and rachamim means that each of us must be continuously engaged in this dance, in this complicated choreography, that takes us back and forth, like a pendulum, between the seat of justice and the seat of mercy. It’s not just a thought experiment; it’s our responsibility to proactively seek insight from both dinand rachamim, internalize their teachings, and only then—decide what our response will be.
Earlier this morning, we stood before the ark and chanted: l’el orech din: let us all crown You sovereign, You who are the ultimate arbiter of justice. Levochen levavot byom din, legoleh amukot beyom din. You probe all hearts on the Day of Judgment, you reveal all that is hidden on the day of judgment.
We can hide nothing from you, God, you see all of our failings and our shortcomings. In response to the fallibility that is written into our DNA: show us the way, lead us on the path toward righteousness.
But we also insist:
Levatik ve’oseh chesed beyom din: You act with wisdom and compassion on this day of judgment, because you remember our covenant.
Le’oneh lekorav beyom din: you answer those who cry out to you on this day of judgment, you demonstrate mercy in judgment.
If we have the audacity to call out in prayer, demanding that God use both justice and mercy to evaluate us, is it too much for us to also crack open the hardening around our hearts so that we can hear all of the voices in our midst? Let us remove our scar tissue, invite the cacophony of joy and pain and truth, learning from God how to infuse both din and rachamim into our worldviews. For if we can do this with honesty and integrity, we will be able to create a world—even outside of Mr. Roger’s neighborhood—in which radical kindness, compassion, and dignity are real and expected in all of our encounters.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share