Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
I want to begin with a story from folksinger Dar Williams’ book, “What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open Mike-Night at a Time.”
You start with a hill. You say to yourself, That hill, off the side of the high school, would be perfect for sledding. I know someone who could mow it with his riding mower. You call that guy and ask. He says, “Sure.” … The snow falls, and the plow guy comes… You invite your kids and some of their friends to take a maiden run. All parties inform you that it’s awesome. By afternoon there are twenty kids. The parents talk while the children sled. A woman shyly approaches and says, “I’m on the PTA, and I was wondering if I could sell hot chocolate for a suggested donation. We’re trying to fund some enrichment programs.” “Anyone can do anything,” you say. “I have no claim on this. I just knew a couple of guys.” By the next year, the mowing guy knows a tree guy who’s cleared away the junk trees to make more room for sledding. The PTA woman who sold the hot chocolate has been talking about what the school is up to, what it could use. People offer to teach after-school programs and make school visits. A librarian asks what the library can do. By the next year, the sledding hill is the place to go. People bake for the PTA table, and a local farm is the milk sponsor. The PTA has accumulated a fleet of volunteers who tutor at the school. The woman from the PTA is dating the guy with the mower. The library and school are coordinating events.. Next year [there’s talk] of a small community herb garden, and someone has approached the guy with a plow about starting a tool library. He says he’ll talk to the gal at the VFW Hall. Maybe they could do it there. That’s when a father from another town, watching his kids speed down the hill, turns to you and says, “This is a great town. I wish we lived here.”
When I heard Dar Williams read this story aloud last year, the first thought that came to mind is “That sounds like us. That sounds like the Berkshires.”And in truth, when it comes to building a shared civic space,we’re actually pretty good at it here in these hills. Our schools, our libraries, our community centers all thrive because we use them—because we bring our families, our gifts, and our talents to them and say “I know a guy! Or, I can do that! Or, we can be there.”
This is a great place to live. Perhaps some of you are visiting us this Rosh Hashanah, and thinking quietly to yourself “I wish we lived here!”As a community, we are accustomed to answering the call of civic engagement; and that is something to be proud of.
But could we be better?
Here in our Hevreh community, could we go deeper?
As we welcome in the year 5779, I want to suggest that now, more than ever- what we need is radical neighborliness.
The documentary film, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” came out this summer, and like many of you— drawn by nostalgia, and something even stronger, I had to go see it. On a hot June Monday afternoon, I took myself to the Triplex, and escaped into Fred Rogers’ land of Make-Believe for a couple of hours. The first thing most people say,when talking about the film is some iteration of,“Oh my God, I cried the whole time”— or, “From the moment I heard the opening notes of that song… the tears just fell.”
(SING) It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor: would you be mine? Could you be mine?
And like most people— the tears welled to my eyes as soon as the film started. Fred Rogers,a Presbyterian minister with a vision for what childhood couldbe, offered generations of children a televised warm hug: speaking directly into their hearts, — inviting them, as he described to “know that they are loved, and capable of loving”
Rogers famously spoke into the hearts of children, while giving parents the language for facing the challenges of their day: in his cardigan and sneakers, he faced everything from the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, to race relations and nuclear war.
“Love is at the root of everything,”Rogers says at one point in the documentary. He believed that: “All learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.” Remarkably, what Fred Rogers did was to quietly translate a deeply religious message into a language the secular world could understand. He taught us the difference between saying “Love your neighbor as yourself” and actually modeling what it means to be a good neighbor.
As Michael G. Long points out in his book, Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers, Fred Rogers pursued the that greater good of radical neighborliness in his own way:
Fred didn’t march against Jim Crow; he cast black actors on his program. He didn’t travel to Birmingham or Selma in support of integration; he set up a pool and invited Officer Clemmons (played by black, gay actor François Clemmons) to soak his feet and share his towel. Marching, writing, calling, and organizing are all good ways to make change, but Fred’s life reminds us that we can work for the well-being of the most vulnerable wherever we may be, in whatever work we do. In other words, “There are many ways to say ‘I love you.’”
His was an invitation into relationship, knowing that with that relationship would come growing pains, because oncewebegin with loving ourselves, and then move on to loving our neighbor, how can we help but love the whole world?
The timing for this documentary could not have been accidental: I have heard more than one person remark that the world could use Mr. Rogers now more than ever. With a message grounded in love, Fred Rogers, along with Officer Clemmons, Daniel Striped Tiger and the cast of the land of Make-believe provided generations of families with their first object lesson in community building. His lessons were countercultural in 1969, and all the more so today, remindingusthat the more things change, the more they stay the same. Lest we dismiss the lessons of Mr. Rogers as pediatric, or a throwback to simpler times, I want to suggest that radical neighborliness is actually a deep and meaningful theology of love.
A critical look at the world around us tells me thatwe need to adapt a position of radical neighborliness. Our Jewish tradition gives us the blueprint, and our times demand it of us.
(SING) So let’s make the most of this beautiful day, Since we’re together, we might as well say, Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?
The tranquil rhythms of that invitation remind us how simple the job of being a good friend, a good parent, or a good citizen can be: You offer up your heart, your patience, and your silence, and make some room for whatever your neighbor might bring.
Simple, and yet— we know that these types of relationship don’t happen all the time. My personal experience of living here in the Berkshires is that we are quite good at living in “capital C” community: the Berkshires are first and foremost, a region; an interconnected collection of towns and villages that cause most of us to say “I live in the Berkshires” before getting more specific.
We’re good at the things that bring many people together into common spaces; like Dar Williams’ sled hill.
But, do you know your actual next-door neighbor?
The person or people with whom you share a driveway, or a lawn, or a fence?
Do you know the people whose apartment is next to yours?
If you do know your neighbors, how deeply do you know them? Do you know their struggles? Their fears? Their loves?
Why Radical Neighborliness?
In considering how the Jewish tradition helps us to answer these questions, I am reminded of the teachings of Martin Buber, who examines the in-between-us elements of relationship in his work “I-Thou”. Were Martin Buber and Fred Rogers to meet, I suspect they would have an easy time finding common language.
Martin Buber’s theology is one that requires us to show up: to respond to the actual real-life human beings in front of us, and to see them, and to be open to being seen; to see each person as a refraction of the Divine Image. Buber helpfully differentiates the types of relationships that are available to us, depending on how we encounter the other. On the one hand, we can move through the world and have all sorts of transactional encounters with other people, without ever really seeing them. Barely looking up from our phones as we mindlessly hand the grocery checkout person our credit card, letting our eyes drift away from what our patient or our student or our child is telling us— those are examples of what Buber would call and “I-It” encounter. I-It misses that Divine Spark in the other person, making us little more than two sides of a transaction.
But, I-Thou on the other hand: that’s where the real possibility for connection lies. We know a successful connection when we find it; that quality of energy that’s created in between us. We lose track of time, our faces become flushed, and not only do we feel known, understood and loved, but we’re actively knowing, understanding and loving the being across from us. The encounter is mutual, and what’s created in-between-us is magical and momentary. And this is why the Martin Buber declared: “All real living is meeting.”[i]
The brilliance of Buber is that it is both simple and deep.
We see this fundamental truth reflected starkly in our world today.Because both our most intimate and our more ephemeral relationships like the ones maintained on social media now claim additional bandwidth, neighborly ties have suffered.
In an article entitled “Invite your Neighbors over for a BBQ”, Marc Dunkelman writes:
We’ve abandoned the familiar relationships formed between members of a bowling league or an Elks Lodge.. We’re more connected than ever — but we’re simultaneously estranged from the people who live next door.
Research shows that “middling relationships”— like the ones we share with our neighbors, have enormous transformative potential to actually break through those echo chambers. Dunkelman continues:
A left-wing academic might talk with a conservative banker while in line at Blockbuster — if that’s how we still rented movies. An activist could explain the benefits of paid leave to a skeptical businesswoman on the sidelines of the P.T.A. meeting — if that were how we spent our Tuesday nights. Experiments that compel ordinary people to discuss a fraught topic face-to-face have illustrated that those conversations quite frequently lead participants to think differently. But without middling relationships, those sorts of thoughtful, substantive interactions have become all too rare.
Put another way: our neighbors are essential. Their physical proximity should not be underestimated for the potential to become emotional and social proximity. We hear this message amplified by our civic culture as well as in our Jewish tradition.
In 1963,Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke at the Civil Rights March in Washington DC— and strikingly, he taught: “Our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, [God] created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity .”
Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept.
Imagine for a moment, the transformative potential of living that call and response of “won’t you be neighbor?” in your daily life. Imagine, if you could draw a map of your home, and note all of the people with whom you share some kind of common border or space: a hallway, a lawn, a corner, a driveway—do you know all of their names?
What could it mean to move from a casual “Hey there” to knowing their name?
And then, maybe to knowing that their mom just had surgery or their kid just won a soccer tournament?
From there, to offering to take their mail in for them when they go away,
and sitting down for a cup of coffee when they return to retrieve it?
To calling them up to say ‘you heard the news, and you’ll be over in a little while with some food if they feel like talking’.
“Won’t you be my neighbor “was an open invitation, and Fred Rogers showed us what accepting it would require of us: Mr. Rogers did not simply teach that “Love is at the root of everything,” and leave it there as some unreachable ideal, but also that “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”
As my wise friend Rabbi Bethie Miller teaches:
Love obligates. When I encounter You, I respond to you, and response is the first step toward responsibility. I encounter You – my precious friends. I encounter You – my neighbor. And I occasionally encounter You – that complete stranger behind the counter or across from me on the subway, and for a moment, there is understanding and fondness in the space between us.
On this eve of the new year, I hope and pray that we will take this invitation seriously: if, as Martin Buber teaches, ‘all speech is response’, then all action is embodied response. Thinking back to that moment in the theater this summer, as the credits rolled, I wondered about the significance of those tears that rolled too.
Why was I crying? What was that embodied response? After all— it was just a film, he was just one person, it was just a TV show, right?
What I have come to understand, is that they are the tears we shed when we know in our hearts that we have lost a teacher, and that all that remains are their lessons; the tears we shed when we realize how much work is yet to be done in bringing those lessons to life.
May we take those tears, and use them to water the fertile soil that rests between us and our neighbors—may we step bravely into relationship with others, answering that invitation into neighbor-hood with love, compassion, and openness.
Story adapted for length. Williams, Dar. What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open Mike-Night at a Time.”
Rabbi Bethie Miller. Spiritual Autobiography. 2013.