SERMON: Won’t You be My Neighbor? Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5779

Rabbi Andy Gordon Image
Rabbi Andy Gordon
on September 12, 2018

It was a dark and cold evening, some twenty five years ago, in Billings, Montana.[i]  Brian Schnitzer was downstairs working in his basement when he heard a noise.  He went upstairs and found that his son’s bedroom was freezing cold.  As he looked about, he found a brick lying between the beds with splintered glass scattered all over the room.  It was the week prior to Hanukkah and his five-year-old son, Isaac, had decorated the window with symbols of the holiday: a menorah, a dreidel, a Star of David, and the words Happy Hanukkah!  Someone had picked up that brick from outside the yard and hurled it right through the window.

When the police arrived, they suggested that the family put bars on their windows, get a dog, and make sure to remove all Jewish symbols. When Margie MacDonald, then the Executive Director of the Montana Association of Churches heard this, she reached out to her Pastor and suggested that the church do something.  They decided to pass out paper menorahs to the members of the congregation to place in their windows at home.  Now, I’m sure many of you know what happened next!  The Gazette, the local paper, decided to publish a full-page color image of a menorah.  Over 10,000 families, cut out these menorahs and posted them on their windows.

In 1993, Billings, Montana was awash in hatred.  Elements of the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nation were at work.  Fliers targeting minorities and LGBTQ people were found on car windshields; a teenager was beaten with a baseball bat in a racially motivated attack; a Native American family had their house spray painted with racist graffiti; even the synagogue received a bomb threat that Yom Kippur.

To respond to this hatred, an interfaith coalition began meeting that spring, joining together for community conversations and urging lawmakers to pass resolutions countering bigotry.  Yet, it was during Hanukkah that people courageously proclaimed that enough was enough.  Thousands of Billings residents, almost all of them not Jewish, stood by their neighbors, against hatred and fear.

In our Jewish tradition, there are many commandments, many mitzvot, which we are expected to follow.  Six hundred thirteen commandments in total.  Now, as I’m sure you can imagine, our rabbis have argued for millennia about which mitzvah is the most significant of all.  The consensus, if we could have consensus in Judaism, is the proclamation by Rabbi Akiva:[ii] that the major principle of the Torah is “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”[iii]  Even Hillel, the famous rabbi, who lived a hundred years earlier, proclaimed this teaching, albeit in a slightly different way.  “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  This is the entire Torah.  All the rest is commentary.”[iv]

Our rabbis teach that we are unable to live a meaningful Jewish life without a connection to one another.  We can’t follow the mitzvot, we can’t celebrate Jewish tradition, and we can’t be Holy unless we love our neighbor.  We can’t even be in relationship with God, unless we love our neighbor.

Now, I’ve been thinking a lot about neighbors in recent months.  I’m now settled-in as a Baltimorean.  I’m now a homeowner and live not far from here in Baltimore City.  I’ve been reflecting upon what it means to be a good neighbor.  Who is my neighbor?  What’s my responsibility to be a good neighbor?  What do my neighbors expect of me?

Who better to teach us about being a good neighbor than Mr. Rodgers? This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the first episode of Mr. Rodgers Neighborhood – that groundbreaking children’s tv show on PBS. Recently, a new documentary entitled “Won’t You be My Neighbor” was released and a new movie starring Tom Hanks comes out later this year.

Mr. Rodgers began every show with the song, that I’m sure most of you know: “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor.  Would you be mine?   Could you be mine?”  Mr. Rodgers was goofy.  Even when he began in the 1960’s, he was a little square, a little “old fashioned.”  Yet, he was beloved because everything he did focused on one thought, and one thought alone: “to love your neighbor and to love yourself.”

In the summer of 1969, a year after he began the show, our country was at war with itself.  There were those who tried to hold on to our racist past. And when Blacks and Whites attempted to swim together in pools in neighborhoods from coast to coast, there were those who threw dangerous chemicals into the water to flush people out.  And on Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood?  Fred Rodgers invited Officer Clemmons, a Black Police Officer, to sit next to him and enjoy the cool water on their feet.  A black man and a white man, in 1969, bathing together in a pool on television.  Fred thought it was ridiculous that we would treat people with such contempt, such hatred because of the color of their skin.

A few years later, Mr. Rodger’s welcomed Jeff Erlanger to the Neighborhood.  Jeff was a young child who since the age of four was wheelchair bound because of a tumor that attacked his spine.  After getting to know each other, Mr. Rodgers and Jeff sang a song together. “It’s you I like, the way you are right now.  Not the things that hide you. Not the fancy chair beside you.  It’s you I like.”  In the words of Fred Rodgers, “Love is at the root of everything.  Love is what keeps us together and afloat.”

Now I don’t know about you, but it sure doesn’t feel that way to me, today.  There is so much fear of those who are different from us.  We are more divided than ever, scared of those who speak different languages, who look different, worship different, act different, or even who came here from distant shores.  This fear has manifested itself in so many ways, most significantly in a hatred of each other.

We Jews know what it’s like to feel different – to face discrimination and abuse.  We Jews know what it’s like to be fearful of our surroundings, to hear that cry of sorrow.  Tomorrow morning’s Haftarah reading is one of those cries.  During the time of the Prophet Jeremiah, in the 8th Century BCE, the ten Northern tribes were taken captive by the Assyrian Empire.  There was a feeling of hopelessness that the ten tribes would never again be reunited with the Jewish people.  Jeremiah expresses these feelings of grief through the cry of Rachel, the Israelite matriarch: “Thus said the Lord: A cry is heard in Ramah – wailing, bitter weeping – Rachel weeping for her children.  She refuses to be comforted.  For her children, who are gone.”[v]

Rachel’s cry is an eternal cry.  Rachel’s cry hits me right in the gut. There are still hundreds of kids separated from their mothers, their fathers, their loved ones.  There are kids who of no fault of their own were taken from their caregivers and locked up into cages.  There are mothers and fathers who weep for their children who search courageously for their missing kids.  Refugees and Immigrants who fear for their lives.  Rachel’s cry is heard today, by every mother and every father who refuses to be comforted.  Every parent who lost a child, buried a child, who mourns for a child who is missing.

Rabbi Ruhi Sophia Motzkin Rubenstein teaches “Rachel is in pain for two reasons – she is not only in outraged grief over her children’s exile, but she feels the dissonance of knowing what true compassion and graciousness look like.”[vi]  As we watch families torn apart, we emulate Rachel: who wept not only for her children, but also named the compassionate way of living that seemed all but gone.  We protest the vulgarity and the disregard for humanity for this must not become the new normal.

Protest is one thing, but what about love?  It’s hard enough to love our family and friends, but to love a neighbor?   The rabbis realized long ago that Judaism couldn’t legislate emotion.  No one can say “love them!”  How than do we profess love of our neighbor?  Jewish tradition believes that we love through action.  As writer and teacher Danny Siegel teaches: “Whatever I wish for myself, I should wish the same for the other.  If I wish to have peace of mind, security, a decent living, friends, family, good health for myself, I am to wish that for others also, and to act in such a way as to allow others to have those blessings”[vii]

Whether a refugee, an immigrant, or those that look or act differently from us.  Whether a neighbor with a different perspective or a unique political ideology, we must wish the same for them as we do for ourselves.  That’s the challenge.  It takes courage to fight back hatred with love.  Or as Michelle Obama reminds us: “When they go low, we go high.”  We attack with decency, honor, respect, and kindness.  It takes courage and perseverance to love our neighbor, especially the neighbor who frightens us or makes us uncomfortable or down-right angry!

Twenty-five years ago, on a cold winter evening, the good people of Billings, Montana, acted out of love.  Like the righteous gentiles of generations prior, they quenched the fire of hatred and fear, with acts of overflowing love and compassion.  Their menorahs were signs of solidarity: a beacon that all of their neighbors were welcomed and loved.

That’s why we light the Menorah on Hanukkah!  The Menorah banishes darkness with light, fear with hope.  In the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis ask: “When must we light the menorah?”  The answer: “at sunset until the last of our neighbors arrive home.”[viii]  Think of that for a moment.  The menorah is kindled during moments of darkness and must stay lit until every single person has found a safe way home.[ix]

This isn’t new!  In every generation, the Jewish Community kindled light in the face of darkness.  We marched with Dr. King, we traveled down to Mississippi along with the Freedom Riders, we stood-up for the Refuseniks, and were loud and proud for Gay Rights.  Yet, that was the past.  The struggle continues today.  It’s the refugee detained at the border, the voter taken off the voting rolls, or the Muslim persecuted for her dress.  We kindle light, until each of our neighbors arrives safely home.

And what about our literal neighbor?  That neighbor that lives a few blocks away or just across town?  It’s the neighbor who stands on the street corner with her arm outstretched or the young man with a squeegee in hand.  It’s the neighbor who’s scared of the ever-increasing gun violence and is fearful of the police that are supposed to protect her.  It’s the neighbor that doesn’t send his children to the best schools or the neighbor that struggles to pay her water bills or just get on by.

Love is difficult.  Loving our neighbor is never easy.  Yet, no one ever said that Judaism was easy.  That is the mitzvah, the responsibility and the expectation of every Jew, and every member of our community: “To love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  To kindle light in the dark places of our city, to shine light against hatred and dehumanization, to banish fear with light and love.

After the dark days of September 11th, 2001, PBS Executives asked Fred Rodgers to come back from retirement for one final episode.  Fred was forlorn, beaten down by the negativity and fear that shrouded our society after 9/11.  Yet, even in his sadness, he was able to provide these words, his words: “No matter what our particular job, especially in our world today, we all are called to be Tikkun Olam – repairers of Creation.”  His words, “We all are called to be Tikkun Olam – repairers of Creation.”  And he continues… “Thank you for whatever you do and wherever you are, to bring joy and light and hope and faith and pardon and love to your neighbor and yourself.”

That’s our call.  That’s our call of action.  To love the neighbor.  To love yourself.

Reposted from with the permission of Rabbi Andy Gordon.


[ii] Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarin 9:4

[iii] Leviticus 19:18

[iv] Talmud Bavli Shabbat 31a

[v] Jeremiah 31:15

[vi] – D’var Torah by Rabbi Ruhi Sophia Motzkin Rubenstein

[vii] “A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself” by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, p. 12

[viii] Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 21b

[ix] In gratitude to Rabbi David Stern for his insights on this text