Sermon – Parshat Chakat
June 23, 2018 | 10 Tammuz 5778
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

Many years ago I sat down with Rabbi Goodman after my first semester at the Seminary.

I wasn’t in rabbinical school at that time, but Rabbi Goodman convinced me that JTS’ rabbinical school was the way for me to go.

Boy, was that a mistake!

No, no. It wasn’t a mistake for me to become a rabbi.

After nearly 35 years in the pulpit, I have no regrets.

It’s just that I shouldn’t have gone to the seminary or to HUC or to YU or any other traditional rabbinical school.

Let me explain.

About 15 years ago when I started to read the Sunday wedding announcements in the New York Times, I began to notice that officiants didn’t necessarily have titles like “Rabbi” or “Reverend” or “Father” in front of their names.

I begin to see words like these – “The officiant, John Smith, a friend of the groom, was ordained for the occasion by the Church of The Holy Streetwashers.”

So I went online, found the website of the Church of The Holy Streetwashers … and discovered that ordination could be obtained for $39.95!

I immediately called my parents – “Mom/Dad, I’m sorry. It looks like you gave a whole lot more money to the Seminary for my rabbinical education than was necessary …”

Friends – I went to the Seminary because I was a Jew steeped in the Conservative movement.

It was the only place for me – and I learned there … lots and lots of text.

Some years later, after I had earned a Masters Degree in Social Work at Columbia University and had been in the pulpit rabbinate for a few years, I wondered if I hadn’t learned more about how to be a congregational rabbi in social work school than I did in rabbinical school.

Last Sunday, I emerged from the movie theater where I had paid a mere $12 – even less than I would have paid for ordination at The Church of The Holy Streetwashers – and wondered if I could have gotten by in the rabbinate had I just watched Mr. Rogers.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” – the iconic song Fred Rogers, of blessed memory, would sing at the beginning of each episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood is the title of a new documentary on his life.

Go see the movie.

You will be able to go to more exciting films this year.

But I don’t think you are likely to go to a more heart-warming film this year than this one.

And very likely, you will see no more important film than this one.

Go see the movie!

Fred Rogers grew up as a roly-poly child, and he became the butt of all of the insults of the bullies.

In response, he not only slimmed down; he became a champion of children… of all children.

Fred loved children .. all children.

Growing out of his own experience as a bullied child, Fred wanted every child to grow up with awareness of his uniqueness and inherent worth.

No child, in fact no one, should have to earn respect; it ought to be given to her because she deserves it.

Moreover, Fred Rogers valued diversity among people.

In his world of the 1960’s and 70’s, skin color still mattered to alot of people and divided them – whites and coloreds.

But to Fred, different skin colors were simply a mark of human diversity and nothing more.

Skin color was not to impact on the degree of respect afforded a person for a very simple reason –

Genesis 1:26 – “Na’aseh et ha’adam…” – “Let us make the human being in our image, after our likeness.”

That verse in the Creation story represented the basis and guidepost for Fred Rogers’ interactions with people …all people.

As a Christian, in fact an ordained Presbyterian minister, Fred respected everyone because he saw the divine image in everyone.

Respect was not earned; respect was to be shown and shown unconditionally to all because that was the way God had ordained the world and the human being’s placed within it.

I was too old to watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Our son, Ariel, now 32, remembers watching some reruns, but I think Michael Jordan had more impact on him.

Neither Aliza nor Josh really saw the TV show.

But after watching the film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I have to tell you that I miss Fred Rogers.

We could use a popular, plain-spoken hero today; someone who shared worthy and timeless values with our children, grandchildren and with us.

Need I tell you how much our world, how much our own country fails to embody those values today?

I constantly need to remind myself that the world did not come into being so that we could fear others, seek to protect ourselves from them and demean those with whom we disagree.

You probably also need to remind yourself that we’re better than that.

Once upon a time, to our children, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was thirty minutes of enchantment that shaped minds and hearts.

Perhaps today those cinematically simple shows can no longer enchant anyone.

But they, along with the life of the one responsible for them, Fred Rogers, can and, I would say, must shape our minds and hearts and those of future generations.

HEBREW – So may it be!