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Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

September 15, 2021

Kol Nidre 5782

Let me invite you to close your eyes and think about a time you have been out of your element, a fish out of water. A time when you have found yourself in a foreign or unfamiliar setting.

Perhaps you’re thinking about traveling to a new country or a new place, something we all miss doing and hope we will do more of in the year to come.

Perhaps you’re thinking about a time you started a new job or volunteer role. You may be remembering a time you moved to a new city or town, recently or many years ago. Meeting new neighbors, learning new streets and grocery stores.

You might be recalling the moment you became a parent or grandparent for the first time, or all over again.

Maybe you’re thinking about learning to use new technology, learning to participate in virtual services. Strangers in a strange land. And in the new year, we are all strangers to ourselves. We are all new.

Recently, I was struck by a story of someone who has this experience of being new, of entering an unfamiliar place. During the pandemic, stuck at home, many of us have reached “the bottom of Netflix,” streaming many TV shows and movies from our living rooms. Perhaps, like me, you’ve also been reading more often.

Recently, I’ve been reading and watching more fiction than ever before, caught up in the stories woven by masterful authors and screenwriters.

So many of us love fiction, whether short stories, novels, television, or movies, because we see ourselves in the stories of others.

We love fiction because it helps us escape our current reality - especially when the world around us is quiet, or dull, or challenging. We visit new places or get into the head of someone who is completely unlike us. We explore new worlds.

And we love fiction because much truth can be shared in the make believe. Through fiction, through the imaginary experiences of the characters, writers can say things that are very true.

One television show that Ive been watching non-stop and over and over is called Ted Lasso. Maybe you’ve seen it. It tells the story of an amateur American football coach from Kansas who is hired to coach a professional soccer team outside of London. An American football coach hired to coach European football.

Ted is a wonderful character - completely disarming, charming, and happy-go-lucky. It is impossible not to love him, but every fan of his new soccer team, Richmond, dislikes him, because they think hes going to run the team into the ground!

I wont give away too much about the plot, because I hope youll enjoy this show if you havent already. Its one of the most powerful and compelling pieces of fiction that I have seen in some time.

Ted is, indeed, a fish out of water, new in his environment, and we love him for it, because we know what it feels like to be that stranger in a strange land.

We, too, are out of our element this High Holy Day season. Were largely at home, online. Right now, I am looking at a mostly empty sanctuary, without you in it.

This is a truth that we all know. Our world is a challenging place right now. We may be tired, frustrated, fed-up with COVID, short on patience for those immediately around us, or perhaps angry at those we have never met, thousands of miles away, whose behavior is extending the pandemic.

Tonight, I invite you to escape our current reality for a few moments, to join me in exploring an alternate world, imagining a new story. In it, we will find much that is true.

Through Ted Lasso, we can also learn much about teshuva, about repentance, about return and renewal, our message for this sacred day of Yom Kippur and for this High Holy Day season.

Returning, for a moment, to Birkat Kohanim, the priestly benediction, our theme for these High Holy Days, we come to the third line:

Yisa Adonai panav eilecha vyasem lcha shalom - May God lift up Gods countenance upon you, and grant you peace.

We know that word, peace, shalom, quite well. But what does it mean in this context? As biblical scholar Mark Brettler explains,

It is unclear in what sense shalom, [usually] translated as peace, should be understood. Without any question, the word typically has that sense in rabbinic Hebrew, and it is one of the words meanings in Biblical Hebrew as well. But here it is used [regarding] people… and perhaps is better translated as ‘well-being.’” (My Peoples Prayerbook, vol 2, 172)

Tonight, lets consider how entering into teshuva, a process of becoming whole again, can bring us to a place of shleimut, of well-being, of wholeness, of being at peace. Teshuva is a process of becoming whole again, while acknowledging the brokenness in others and ourselves.

Ted Lasso, our TV show, offers several moments of truth, lessons for teshuva and wholeness, of being at peace with ourselves and those around us.

In one of the most powerful scenes of the show, Ted is at a local restaurant and finds himself in a showdown with the antagonist character, Rupert, over a game of darts. The stakes are high; they have made a bet and will each gain something important to them if they win the game. Rupert has underestimated Ted, taking him for a bumbling, goofy American.

In between hitting perfect bullseyes, the exact shots he needs to win the bet, Ted delivers a powerful message. He says:

Guys underestimated me my entire life. And for years, I never understood why. It used to really bother me. But then one day I was driving my little boy to school and I saw this quote…painted on the wall there. It said: Be curious, not judgmental.And I liked that. So I get back in my car and Im driving to work, and all of a sudden it hits me. All them fellas that used to be belittle me; not a single one of them were curious. They thought they had everything all figured out. So they judged everything, and everyone. And I realized that they're underestimating mewho I was, had nothing to do with it. ‘Cause if they were curious, they couldve asked questions. You know? Questions like: Have you played a lot of darts, Ted?To which I wouldve answered: Yes, sir. Every Sunday afternoon at a sports bar with my father, from age ten til I was 16 when he passed away. 

Be curious, not judgmental. What a message for this season of our Jewish year.

Be curious, not judgmental. What if we offered this grace, this interest, this open-mindedness, to everyone we met? What if instead of being quick to judge a family member, friend, or person we’ve never met, we instead approached them with curiosity?

Ted Lasso is a successful show because each character appears to be a caricature, a stereotype. However, each character is actually written just slightly against type. Each character carries around a fact or personality trait that surprises us. The tough and gruff veteran soccer legend has a soft spot for his 9-year old niece. The deadpan assistant coach is a chess aficionado. And Ted himself, optimistic and cheerful to the outside world, struggles with anxiety and the end of his marriage.

Everyone carries around a bit of brokenness that we may not know about. That’s what makes a good work of fiction, and we find it’s true in life, as well.

This new year, I invite us to work past our assumptions about others. How can we respond to each person, each decision, each moment where we would be quick to anger or judge, instead with curiosity?

At the beginning of our Torah service, we recite God’s attributes, God’s character traits. Traits that we aspire to emulate, created, as we are, in God’s image.

Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’chanun. Erech apayim v’rav chesed v’emet. Notzer chesed la’alaphim. Nosei avon v’phesha v’chataah v’nakeh

God, Oh God: You are compassionate, gracious, endlessly patient, loving, and true; showing mercy to the thousandth generation; forgiving evil, defiance, and wrongdoing, and granting pardon.

God, too, is a character in the drama of our lives. In Birkat Kohanim, our priestly benediction, in our third line, we ask for God to “lift up God’s face upon us,” a phrase that echos these character traits. With this metaphor, we are asking for God’s compassion, God’s mercy, God’s patience, God’s forgiveness, God’s grace.

We aspire to be like God as we hold these character traits, these aspects of ourselves, in balance. Especially on these High Holy Days, God balances the traits of din, judgment, and rachamim, compassion. So, we, too, know that there are times for judgment, but also times that we are too quick to judge.

May we find moments to be more curious and compassionate this year, and less judgmental.

May we offer this curiosity to all we meet: to the broken and bereaved, the angry and aggravated. To the person who is speeding behind us on Route 7, we offer curiosity - why are they in a rush? Is everything ok? instead of judgment - why they are tailing me?!

To the family member or friend who doesn’t answer our phone calls - we banish our judgment - they aren’t a good friend, they’re ignoring me - and we get curious - are they ok? What’s going on with them, really? And we try again, because we don’t give up on the people we love.

To the student who keeps their zoom screen blank, their video feed dark. Instead of frustration, we wonder what is keeping them from engaging.

To the person who holds another political perspective from our own - why and what has driven them toward this belief? Instead of being quick to judge, can we try to put ourselves in their shoes, as hard as that is, even for a moment?

And for ourselves. So many of us have an internal voice of doubt, of self-deprecation, of judgment. Can we get curious about our shortcomings and our fears? Can we get close enough to that voice of judgment to ask it - why? To truly get curious about how we can improve ourselves and our lives, and at the same time, to be gracious to ourselves this year?

May we be gracious and patient, loving and true. May we strive to be curious, not judgmental, as we enter 5782.

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA

Sun, October 17 2021 11 Cheshvan 5782