Erev Rosh Hashanah: Be the Goldfish

Erev Rosh Hashanah: Be the Goldfish

We have arrived, once again, at this sacred space, in search of inspiration for the coming year.  We want to be inspired, we want to feel moved.  Our world has travelled forward another year, and there are many reasons to feel concern about the path that lies before us.  And like countless others before us, in this place and congregations and communities across time and around the globe, we turn to the pages of our machzor, scan the wisdom of our ancestors, looking for direction, and answers to life’s largest questions.  Why is contentment so elusive?  After all this time, why do I feel all the uncertainties than I do?  Why is change so difficult?  Am I making the most of the time I’ve been given?

The sages teach: who is wise?  One who learns from all people.  But in our society, we are suspicious of role models, and we watch as each day some new public figure falls, and disappoints.  From where will our inspiration come?  Where are the role models, in our generation, who busy themselves making the world better for all humankind, and who illumine the path for us?

The good news is I think I have found one.  The bad news is that he is a fictional character, sort of.  And at the risk of delivering a sermon with a shelf life as short as the next Golden Globes award season, I have to say that this character has restored my faith in the potential of role models. Not to mention my faith in the cynical Hollywood entertainment machine that somehow allowed this one shining light of redemption to blaze into being.  We Jews have made an entire religion out of telling stories, and this story is one for the books.

In 2020, just as the world we know was grappling with the major double blows of COVID shut-downs and the utter dissolution of public discourse, a television character was busy being born who just might be the most Jewish character ever seen on American television.  Not Jewish in a self-deprecating, Woody Allen kind of way.  Jewish in the best sense, an individual for whom ethics and values are a roadmap for life, a living Torah.  And for the past three years, devotees have hungrily consumed the Torah parceled out in his weekly teachings.

When asked whether or not he was aware of creating a phenomenon of positivity, an ideology of inspiration, a model of non-toxic masculinity, the actor himself explained that something, dare I say it, Divine, was at work in the writer’s room. During one interview he commented on living in a time in which shows celebrate anti-heroes, from the Sopranos to Mad Men to Breaking Bad.  He says he felt moved to offer something of a remedy, He was quoted this way: “We were just living in an unkind moment in human history (this is 2015).  I didn’t want to snark out anymore… oh yeah, and I didn’t want to swear.”[1]  Small goals perhaps, but not ones that felt likely to get the green light from a major television studio.

The actor is Jason Sudeikis, well known from his time on Saturday Night Live, and the character he has created is Ted Lasso.

The Torah of Ted Lasso is rich and varied, and if I may, I will quote Pirkei Avot in which the rabbis say of Torah, “Turn it, and turn it again, for all teaching are within it.” (Avot 5:22).  Sudeikis has shared that every time a fan comes to him and says that this is the show that literally saved their life, they have usually found something deeply personal contained in the story.  Sudeikis says he responds with, “Me too.” And then, “I mean it.”  He shares, “the stories we hear in response to this show are tremendous, people who say they are going to be nicer at work, people putting up ‘believe’ posters in hospital rooms… we saw this show as a chance to do something earnest… This show isn’t made from anything other than love.” (Creators, ibid).

So at the risk of spoiling the series for any of you who have not yet seen it, tonight I want to share with you just one parsha, one portion of The Torah of Ted Lasso, especially for the New Year.  One might even suggest that this is the perfect show to bring Jewish ethics to life, if somewhat subliminally, as the writer’s room has a significant Jewish presence, including one who literally wrote himself into the show.  But more on that in a moment.

At the show’s open, we meet Lasso on an airplane bound for England.  He is a second-tier American college football coach from Kansas on his way to London to accept a job managing a Premier League British football team.  It becomes painfully obvious that he is not remotely qualified for this job.  He knows literally nothing about the sport, which on this side of the pond is known as soccer.  In fact, the entire premise of Ted Lasso began with this joke, and a single commercial made for English football poking fun at American arrogance and pretense around sports.

But Ted Lasso is anything but bombastic, and his Midwestern charm works its magic on everyone he meets… eventually.  By the end of the second episode, we realize that Ted is what one critic called a, “moral hero, with a singular and innate talent for team building.  His compass consistently points north.”[2]  But Ted is no Pollyanna, he is grappling with plenty of his own demons.  His wife has recently left him, and his young son is distant and depressed.  Ted himself experiences panic attacks he has yet to understand.

In fact, as the show begins, every character is experiencing their own version of a crisis.  The team’s new owner, Rebecca, was given her ex-husband’s pride and joy, his football team, and she is intent on burning it to the ground to spite him.  The team’s star player wrestles with memories of his father, not to mention his own oversized ego.  It turns out even the towel boy struggles to find his place in the world.

It is easy to find yourself in the various characters, they are all delightfully three dimensional, and tragically heroic.  It is just as easy to cull a “ten commandments” of Ted Lasso (versions are rampant online), as Ted is particularly fond of aphorisms and catchy phrases, the kind of lessons you would plaster on posters in the 1980’s.  But what the show does with such heart and soul, is provide us with example after beautiful example of just how profound, sincere, and deeply relevant each of these “ted-isms” can be.  And they could not be more needed in our world, than they are right now.

So on this Rosh Hashanah, as we explore the well-worn stories of Abraham and Isaac at the Akedah, Rabbi Amnon who recited the Unetaneh Tokef prayer before his death, Jonah and his struggle with justice and mercy, the mercy God showed to Ishmael and Hagar his mother, Hannah’s prayer to God before Eli the Priest, and all the others… Let us add this new and popular story to the mix, to learn about justice and mercy, life and death and sacrifice, all from the sidelines of the fictional AFC Richmond and their new coach, Ted Lasso.

The largest, and most obvious lesson for us to study, Lasso’s first commandment, is a bright yellow sign Ted tapes up, early on, above his office door.  The sign says simply, “Believe.”  And, like the show itself, the team players approach this sign hesitatingly.  It seems saccharine and schmaltzy, not nearly enough and yet way too much all at the same time.  Is this what being a good coach consists of?  Just remind everyone to believe?  Believe in yourself, believe in the team, just believe?

No, of course not, “just believe.”  Moses encountered the same problem in attempting to condense our rich heritage into ten short commandments.  There is no such thing as, “just believe.”  Belief is hard.  Believing in yourself is hard.  Believing in a shared vision and goal is hard.  What we need are constant reminders to try to point us toward belief.  We need sign.  We need rituals.  The ritual is not the goal itself.  The ritual reminds us of the goal, it reminds us of who we are and what we want to be.  Some of us end up with sticky notes all over the bathroom mirrors, some of us come here regularly on Friday night, and those are both good rituals!  Give yourself lots of signs.  That way you can find your way to belief.

I think many of us come into this space looking for a bright yellow sign on the wall that tells us what to do, how to feel, and how to become better people.  Our moment of inspiration on Mount Sinai happened a long, long time ago.  And even if all Jewish souls were there to experience it, as some would believe, the thunder and clouds, the lighting and the Giving of the Torah is not fresh in the memory of a 21st century Jew.

And so the point of the ritual, like for example the Passover Seder, is to help us remember what it was all about.  The ritual fills the gaps, and connects you to your past and your people.  All the matzah and maror in the world won’t convince you that you know what slavery is.  And yet we read in the Hagaddah every year – each of us should feel, in every generation, as if we ourselves left Egyptian bondage.  As if.

And moving through ten days of repentance and reciting the litany of sins won’t convince us that God or anyone else has forgiven us, or even that we have forgiven ourselves.  But the ritual points the way to that goal.  We need the ritual. The goal itself is always harder.

Later in the show, that “Believe” sign is torn, and Ted Lasso reminds his team of something important.  They have come to believe in “believe,” and are convinced the football gods have torn down their idol as a sign for them. He says,

“You’re right, it’s a sign.  It’s just a sign.  Believe doesn’t just happen ‘cause you hang  something up on a wall.  It comes from in here (points to heart), and up here (points to head), and down here (points to kishkes).  The problem is we all have so much junk flowing through us, a lot of times we end up getting in our own way.  Envy, fear, shame.  I don’t want to mess around with that stuff anymore.  Do you?
You know what I want to mess around with? (He continues)  The belief that I matter.  Regardless of what I do or don’t achieve.  The belief that we all deserved to be loved, whether we’ve been hurt or maybe we’ve hurt somebody else.  Or what about the belief of hope?  Believing that things can get better.  That I can get better.  That we will get better.  To believe in yourself.  To believe in one another.  That’s fundamental to being alive.  If you can do that, if each of you can truly do that, can’t nobody rip that apart.  (He ends with) See y’all Monday.”

Have I convinced you?  This is the Torah of Ted Lasso.  Ted says to one player, “You’re beating yourself up is like Woody Allen playing the clarinet, I don’t wanna hear it.”  To the team he quips, “I believe in communism, rom-communism that is.  If all those attractive people can go through some lighthearted struggles and still end up happy, then so can we.”  As for himself, he offers, “Taking up a challenge is a lot like riding a horse, isn’t it?  If you’re comfortable while you’re doing it, you’re probably doing it wrong.”  Ted would have made Oscar Wilde proud.

For Rosh Hashanah, this inspiration to do better, be better, and communicate better is a treasure indeed, but Ted Lasso has much to teach us about the work of Cheshbon Hanefesh, the taking stock of our souls, which is the work of this day.  Life is difficult.  Forgiveness is difficult, and (by the way) forgiveness is difficult in both directions.  It can be very challenging to forgive those who have hurt us.  It can be more challenging to ask for forgiveness.  The show points out, rightly so, that an actual apology matters much less than the work a person must do before they are able to give it.  And just as hard is the work of forgiving those who have wronged us, separate from their capacity to ask.  The tasks of internal change and external repair take time.  The sages teach us to repent one day before our death (Pirkei Avot 2:10).  That day, of course, cannot be known, and so those sages are actually teaching us to engage with our own teshuvah, to learn to work through hurt and towards forgiveness, anger and appeal, over and over again, every day, all year, every year.

It might seem more challenging to seek forgiveness from others, than to offer them ours.  Our sages point out that among the formal steps of teshuvah, the very first step, ‘regretting one’s actions,’ requires recognition, acknowledgement, and some healthy dose of embarrassment before we can make it right.  This is no easy task.

The Torah of Ted Lasso shows us that it sometimes takes an entire season or two, even to get to that first step.  The team’s owner Rebecca finally owns up to Ted that she has been undermining him to get back at her ex-husband, and he forgives her immediately.  But he also explains why that forgiveness is given so easily.  He says, “Divorce is hard,” reminding her that he understands what has been behind her actions, and making a connection with his own struggle.  He continues, “It doesn’t matter if you’re the one leaving, or the one who got left.  It makes folks do crazy things…” And then he offers Rebecca, “You and me?  We’re okay.”  The resolution is not a revelation, we have followed Rebecca on every step of her long road to this moment of teshuvah.

There is another major teshuvah moment in the show which I will not spoil for you today.  Suffice it to say that when the long-awaited words of apology arrive, they too represent the end of a journey, not its beginning.  And Ted almost interrupts the apology in his readiness to forgive.  Several of my Christian colleagues have written sermons on this theme recently, comparing Ted to Jesus, in his utter unwillingness to hold a grudge.  That Jewish writer who I mentioned?  The one who wrote himself into the show?  His curmudgeon of a character has a little harder time forgiving so freely, at least not without some seriously salty-language added for emphasis.

We know that Ted is no divinity.  He has plenty of his own teshuvah to work on.  That is why we have all anxiously awaited season three.  He learns as he teaches, and struggles with the lessons just like everyone else.  Lasso’s second commandment on forgiveness comes at a moment when, challenging a player to let go of small slights and play hard, he asks the player, “You know what the happiest animal on earth is? The goldfish.  He’s got a ten second memory.  Be a goldfish.”  It is a lesson he will repeat to football players large and small.  It is a lesson he himself will need to be reminded of from time to time.

Our liturgy praises God, who is, “compassionate and full of grace, slow to anger, and quick to forgive.” (Ex. 34:5-7)  Would that we could model ourselves after this loving description of God, and become slower to anger ourselves, and quicker to forgive.

The psychology researcher Brene Brown offers that, “Anger is a catalyst, holding onto it will make us exhausted and sick.  It will take away our joy and spirit.  It can mask grief or shame. It is an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice.”

We began tonight with the traditional words of “Hineni” – a call to ourselves to become more fully present to the power of this day.  The machzor contains this alternate reading too:

“Hineni – Here I am, one soul within this praying community. Like those around me, I bring my own concerns and yearnings to this place, hoping they will find expression in the time-hallowed words of my people… May I bring the best of my energies to these Holy Days, approaching this spiritual work with open heart and mind, sincerity, and sustained focus… [may I] take comfort in Your promise that I am always free to change, released from staleness and routine, let me know the joy of beginning again.”

Be the goldfish.

Just one further text from the Torah of Ted Lasso for Rosh Hashanah.  In revealing something difficult to his team, Ted explains:

“…the point is, you should have found out about it from me first.     I chose not to tell you, and that was dumb.  We make a lot of choices in our lives, every single day.  From, ‘am I really about to eat something called greek yogurt?’ to, ‘do I leave my family and take a job halfway around the world?’  Me choosing not to be forthright with y’all, that was a bad choice.  I can’t be wasting time wishing for a do-over on all that – that ain’t how choices work.  That choice… is one thing I’m never getting back.  ‘Cause every choice is a chance, fellas.  And I didn’t give myself the chance to build further trust with you.  To quote the great UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden: ‘It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’  Now I hope y’all can forgive me for what I’ve done.  ‘Cause I sure as heck wouldn’t want any of you to hold anything back with me.”

On Rosh Hashanah we read the text, “Hayom harat olam,” today the world is created anew.  Biblical scholars will tell you that Rosh Hashanah commemorates that act of creation that happened long, long ago.  But it is just as true that when we wake up tomorrow morning, a brand new creation will be awaiting us, for today the world is created anew.  And we know that every new day offers us opportunities for growth, for renewal, for healing, for love.

But this day asks you to take a different leap of faith.  And I like the way Ted Lasso put it.  Every day is filled with choices you’ll never get to make again, not in the same way.  And every choice is a chance.  Every choice is a chance.  The Gates of Repentance are always open.  The Gates of Prayer are always open.  The Gates of the Broken Heart are always open.  The Gates are open.

Jason Sudeikis will tell you his creative team never set out to start any sort of positivity revolution.  He will say that whenever a joke came up in the writer’s room that made fun of someone, or put them down in some way, they all just knew it wasn’t going to work for the show.  Not with this show, not with this character.  Their intention was only to move away from the toxic energy that they felt in the public sphere all around them.  And in the past years that negative energy has only grow.  But so has the phenomenon of Ted Lasso.

The Torah of Ted tells us, you might be sure you’re one in a million, but don’t forget that on a team you’re also one of eleven.  And if you just figure out some way to turn ‘me’ into ‘us’ the sky’s the limit.

And the Torah of Ted tells us that there are two buttons we should never hit, and they are ‘panic’ and ‘snooze.’  Words to live by.

I love that this character sees himself on the same path as the people he is trying to lead.  He recognizes their faults and foibles, just as he sees the same in himself.  Teshuvah, repentance, turning, starting anew, is not a destination or any single accomplishment.  It is a way of walking in the world.  The prophet Micah says, “What does God demand of you?  Only this – do justice, love mercy, and walk with humility.”  This is the Torah of Ted Lasso.

In her beautiful book about teshuvah, Rabbi Karyn Kedar shares this poem.  I would ask that each of us take this with us on the journey of the next ten days.  She calls it, the Bridge.

Forgiveness is a path to be walked. / There are steps along the way: loss, anger, acceptance, learning, forgiveness, restoration. / And along the way, you will come upon a bridge. / When you step upon it, it will carry you, support you, / connect you to another side of life, a side waiting to be discovered. / Forgiveness is a perpetual journey. / There are many bridge crossings. / Each restores a bit more of what you have lost. /

Or as Ted Lasso put it, “Most of the time change is a good thing and I think that’s what it’s all about – embracing change, being brave, doing whatever you have to so everyone in your life can move forward with theirs and maybe it’s the only way you can truly make them happy.

Let this day be the bridge. L’Shana Tovah