[To the tune of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood theme song] It’s a beautiful eve in the sanctuary, a solemnly evening in the synagogue. I’m glad you’re here, I’m glad to share, this holy day with you.
I was 36 years old when Mr. Rogers died. I hadn’t watched him in decades, but I did think of his loving messages from time to time, especially when Kyle and I were talking about raising our own family. I remember watching Mister Rogers tie his shoes and put on his sweater while singing the Wont You be My Neighbortheme song. I believed Mr. Rogers was speaking directly to me. I believed he saw through the television set to see me and to speak to me. I especially liked Daniel Tiger and Mr. Mcfeely, the delivery man and dear friend and did not like the rather stern King Friday XIII. When Fred Rogers died of stomach cancer in 2003 I felt someone important to me had died. It was a loss, a dear loss, actually.
In countless ways, Fred Rogers helped me to feel safe and loved. He said to me—and all of his audience, child and parent alike, “You are a very special person. There is only one like you in the whole world. There’s never been anyone exactly like you before, and there never will be again. Only you. And people can like you exactly as you are.” 
A version of this became the last line of the bedtime prayers we said to our children. It goes like this: “Your Mom and your Dad, your siblings, and the cats love you, your grandparents, your aunts, your uncles love you, your teachers and your friends love you, and God loves you…just the way you are.”
In the recent movie, Wont You Be My Neighbor, we hear Mr. Rogers talk about offering someone an unconditional ‘you are loved.’ He says, “The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.
Mr. Rogers teaches us this and does the Torah and our tradition.
A story is told of a woman who went to visit the rabbi of a small a small school that was talked about from one side of the country to the other. All of the school’s graduates were deeply engaged within their communities and all were said to be the kindest and most generous of souls. The school seemed to work magic on its students and the woman wanted to know why. So, one day she traveled to the school and when the rabbi who led the school opened the door, she said “I hear about your school everywhere I go. Everybody talks about it. They say you create magic here. What is your secret?” The rabbi, a quiet and gentle man, said, “There’s no magic here, and I don’t think we have any secrets. But if you have a moment, I’ll be happy to give you a tour.”
They walked down the hall until they came to the first classroom. The woman peeked inside and saw that all the children in the classroom were waving their hands because
they wanted to answer some question that had been posed by the teacher. Every student was participating in the same enthusiastic way. Then, one of the girls turned her head and saw the face of the rabbi. And she waved her hands, both hands, at him and she smiled, and her face seemed to radiate with an almost heavenly glow. The woman asked, “Who is this girl?” And the rabbi answered, “Ahh, this girl my bat yechidah, my only daughter.” And the woman understood why the girl was so enthusiastic and so excited.
As they walked down the hall to the next room, there was a similar scene – most of the students were waving their hands, hoping to be called on. There was one boy – in the back of the class – who was not waving his hands, not participating. He was bent over his desk, drawing in his notebook. And then, for some reason, he too, looked up at the door and saw the rabbi – and he straightened up in his seat and a big smile broke out over his face and he waved his hand at the rabbi and the rabbi smiled back. So, the woman asked, “And who is this boy?” And the rabbi answered, “Ahh, this boy, he is my ben yachid, my only son.” And the woman smiled in understanding. The rabbi said, “Let me show you one more classroom.”
In the next classroom, as soon as they stepped into the doorway, a young girl looked up, saw the rabbi, and she too gave a huge smile and a big wave. The woman asked, “Well, who is this?” “This girl,” the rabbi said, “she is my bat yechidah. My only daughter.” To which the woman said, “What are you talking about? You told me the girl from the first classroom was your only daughter; the boy from the second classroom was your only son. How can this child also be your only daughter? How is that even possible?” And the rabbi said
to her, “My friend, you don’t understand. None of these children are my biological children. In fact, I have no children of my own. But still, each of these students is my ben yachid, my only child, and each of these students is my bat yachidah, my only child. And each of them is their teacher’s only son and only daughter too. At this school we look at every child as if they were our only child. Perhaps that is the secret of which you speak.”
What does it mean to be a ben yachidor bat yachidah?
It means each one of us is loved. There is enough love to go around for everyone. The heart is capable of loving more.
To be a yachidor yachidahmeans that we each feel loved with a sense that we are innately good and uniquely special, created in God’s image to be just the way we are.
To be a ben yachidor a bat yachidah, means to know that we matter in the world. That we are seen for who we are and not what we are.
On this, the holiest day of the year, each of us is familiar with the assigned sacred deed of chesbon nefesh—taking an accounting of our soul; the task of reviewing our past mistakes, our regrets. This is also a time, if we are honest about it, when the mind is more likely to rehash all of our would-ofs, could-ofs, should-ofs of the past year.
It is a time when we or our children might ask, as Mr. Roger’s did in the voice of Daniel Tiger, “I’ve been wondering if I was a mistake. For one thing, I’ve never seen a tiger that looks like me. And I’ve never heard a tiger that talks like me. And I don’t know any other tiger who lives in a clock. Or loves people. Sometimes I wonder if I’m too tame. . . . I’m not like anyone else I know. I’m not like anyone else.”
The days of awe are designed to fill us with Yirah—fear. Fear of God and maybe perhaps fear that we won’t be inscribed for blessing, that we are too far gone, that we must repent or face punishment, that we are people who miss the mark time and time again, and maybe deep down we fear that we will not be seen, that we are not loveable!
But this Holy Day is also designed to fill us with Yirah—awe, a sense of the pure, divine light that calls us from deep within to see our own exquisite beauty, worthiness, and love. No matter the mistakes, the missed opportunities and fears we may hold. It calls us to see and feel the awesomeness of our own being, the divinity we possess because God sees it and God knows this to be true! God is the very creator of the holy sparks that are within us.
In our liturgy we look at the yirah—the fear of the closing gates and we offer up and admit our transgressions together by taking a fist to the heart as we say, Al chet, we have sinned.
We will do this several times together throughout the next 24 hours.
But what if we added something else during the Days of Awe and on this Yom Kippur Kol Nidre evening? What if we gently put our hand on the heart as we thought about the good that we did rather than on contemplating all the wrong we did? What if we spent time asking, “How am I bringing care and compassion to the world? Can we ask ourselves with genuine loving curiosity, as Rebbe Nachman of Bratslov asks, “What are the nikudot tovot?” What are my good points, my good qualities?
At this holiest of moments, can we give ourselves the permission to bring forth our voice of love and courage rather than solely our voice of judgment, criticism, and shame?
It is permissible to do this, you know. For the voice of love is the voice of God. Rabbi Akiva wrote, “How greatly God must have loved us to create us in the image of God, yet even greater love did God show us in making us conscious that we are created in the divine image”
God wants us to be God’s partner and bring love to the world and there is no better way to do this holy task than to show love to the self. On a day where we return to the pure state of our soul and return to our essence and to the divine that is within us, there is no better a time than to feel the heart and fill it with love and compassion for our own self.
For many of us this task does not come easy, and some still, might not think it necessary. I’ll tell you, I had a hard time believing the importance of the task of sending love and compassion to the self, and it did not, and still does not come easily to me. But it is of utmost importance to know how to do this and do it, in order that we live the blessed life that we are entitled to and created to have.
For more than a few years now I have learned and practiced unconditional love for the self from my teachers and their teachers and it’s a work in progress. One way to begin this practice is to think back to a time when you felt loved and seen. It doesn’t have to be a moment that lasted longer than a second or a minute. It could be from a long time ago, a while back in childhood maybe, or it could be as recently as the past week. This moment of feeling seen and loved could be either from either someone you know or from someone you don’t know–maybe a time you received a friendly smile or a kind glance from a stranger who’s path you crossed. This moment of being seen, of feeling loved, could also come from a pet. As we reflect on that moment, perhaps we can bring to our heart that feeling of love and care. For it truly is a moment of profound grace and goodness.
It is a moment of love, a moment the Divine One created and it is forever embedded into our heart and soul, mind and body.
This memory of a loving moment is as important on this Holy Day as the awareness of Al Chet, ‘we have missed the
mark.’ We are human, and our humanity cannot be defined by our mistakes, regrets, wrongdoings, or our life circumstance, our age or our perceived usefulness. Again, Fred Rogers teaches,
“What’s been important in my understanding of myself and others is the fact that each one of us is so much more than any one thing. A sick child is much more than his or her sickness. A person with a disability is much, much more than a handicap. A pediatrician is more than a medical doctor.”
In our prayer Avinu Malkanu, we pray, “Avinu Malkanu choneinu vaaneinu; Almighty and Merciful—Answer us with grace.” Grace, God’s gift of unconditional love is what we seek on this Holy Day. Grace which allows us to feel God’s abiding love which never departs from us, no matter the imperfections, no matter the deeds done. This is the meaning of this day. The gates are always open to receive God’s love and Grace. This is the blessing of our lives.
May we be blessed with the feelings of being held and loved. May we know and feel that God loves us just the way we are.
Ken Yihi Ratzon. May this be true.
Rogers, Fred. (2005) Life’s Journeys According to Mister Rogers: Things to Remember along the Way,
Hyperion. p. 29
Pirke Avot 3: 18
Makransky, John. (2007) Awakening through Love. Wisdom Publications and