In Parshat Noach, the rich narrative of the human condition on earth and God’s reaction to its limitations continues. Found in the portion are the stories of the Flood, God’s rainbow covenant with humankind, the descendants of Noah and his sons, the Tower of Babel and the introduction of Avram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah.
Early in the parshah we learn that “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.” This opening verse has elicited much commentary throughout the ages. Our sages debated whether the righteousness ascribed to Noah was a compliment or qualified praise. Yohanan ben Zakkai of the late Second Temple period viewed Noah as righteous only in contrast to the wickedness around him. His contemporary, Shimon ben Lakish, believed that it is harder to keep to one’s moral code in the midst of evil, and he considered Noah praiseworthy.
Others pointed out that Noah followed God’s commandment to build the ark and fill it with the prescribed animals, but did not warn his fellow humans to repent or be swept away by the coming catastrophe. It would take 10 more generations for Abraham, the first Jew, to argue and bargain with God about saving any righteous individuals who might be found in Sodom and Gomorrah.
This classical commentary might lead us to examine our own era and its righteous individuals. Are there any contemporary heroes to whom we can look for inspiration? In my High Holiday sermons, I profiled four individuals whose lives exemplified living by their values and who had a great impact on the world; one of my choices was Fred Rogers.
Rogers died in 2003, but 2018 truly has been a “Mr. Rogers year.” A documentary about his work on television entitled (what else?) “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” as well as a biography, “The Good Neighbor,” came out earlier this year. A Tom Hanks film about his life is currently filming in Pittsburgh. What is it about his life that still resonates with us 15 years after his death, and what can we learn about righteousness from his example?
Rogers intended to go to seminary after college, but a visit home changed his life’s mission. On his parents’ television, he saw what passed for children’s entertainment in the early days of commercial TV. It disturbed him to see sponsors’ blatant attempt to turn children into consumers, and he saw little respect for children or human dignity in the content. By the end of his college break, he had decided on his life’s work of making each child who watched his show feel special “just the way you are.”
He was later criticized by some for destroying a whole generation of youth by telling them they were special, with or without making the effort. In a college commencement speech he addressed this, saying he wanted children to understand that you don’t have to do anything sensational for people to love you. He added his belief that the greatest evil is to make people feel less than they are; and the greatest gift, to let someone know he or she is lovable and capable of loving.
During the 1960s, Rogers undertook a series of themed programs. When Robert Kennedy was assassinated, the puppet Daniel Striped Tiger addressed children’s fears in the safety of their own neighborhoods. Rogers tackled difficult subjects like divorce, death and civil rights. When African-Americans were not able to use the same swimming facilities as whites in the South in 1969, he skillfully addressed segregation in a skit with Officer Clemmons, an African-American.
In my favorite moment from the show, Rogers is seen soaking his feet in a wading pool because it is a hot day and the cool water of the pool is refreshing. Officer Clemmons comes by on his rounds, also remarking about the heat. Fred invites him to share the pool and soak his feet. The camera pans to the two sets of feet in the pool — one white and one black. Afterward, Rogers shares his towel with Clemmons and even helps to dry his feet, thus modeling equality and kindness to every viewer in the country. Rogers’ ministry was his show, and his show bravely reflected his strong values.
In his public and private life, he was a beacon of niceness and “caring for the other,” a commandment found in our Torah and repeated more than any other. In one of his last interviews before his death, he said, “Let’s take the gauntlet and make goodness attractive in this so-called next millennium. I’m not talking Pollyanna-type optimism but down-to-earth real goodness — people caring for each other. The only time anything changes in the world is when love abounds and can be shared.”
In his life’s work, Rogers built an ark of love, community and caring. His shows continue to be a shelter from the myriad of different storms we see around us.
Rogers was not Jewish (neither was Noah), but he was well read about other religions, and respectful and embracing of the differences. In a program filmed after 9/11 to help children and adults cope with the enormity of the tragedy, Rogers faced the camera and said, “We are all called to be tikkun olam — repairers of the world.”
Generations after Noah, the human race has evolved to embrace the noble endeavor of caring for others, as commanded by Torah no less than 36 times. This pursuit is embodied by the life and work of Rogers, a truly “righteous gentile” for all times and a model for us all. PJC
Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer is spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Abraham. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.