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Rabbi Kalmar's Sermon - Parshat Toldot - 5 Kislev 5781

“Mr. Roger’s Sweaters and the Generation of Mockers”

Recently someone sent me an email forwarding a cool story with the title “Why Did Mr. Rogers Wear A Sweater?”  The mild mannered, children’s TV host who won the hearts of a nation with his wit and charm had a past that he did not talk about.  Turns out Mr. Rogers was a Navy Seal, combat proven in Vietnam with over 25 kills to his name. He was a master in small arms and hand-to-hand combat, able to disarm or kill in a heartbeat. Later in life he became an ordained Presbyterian minister and a pacifist.  He wore a sweater in order to cover the tattoos on his forearms and biceps that he had from his time in the military. 

               I thought to myself – what could I do with this story and this week’s parsha?  (Because that’s how a rabbi’s brain works – nothing is of interest if it can’t be turned into a drasha.)  Maybe I could talk about Yaakov vs. Eisav in each person – the Ish Tam (the simple Tzadik) vs. the Ish Yodea Tzayid – the wild hunter – the warrior.  Like Mr. Rogers – do we all have both the characteristics of Yaakov and Esav inside us?   I was off to the races with my drasha ideas.   To follow up on the story I decided to read up on Mr. Rogers biography – and when I looked online at his Wikipedia biography – I couldn’t find anything about his military service.  And you know why?  Because the whole story is not true.  It is a complete fabrication.  I went to (one of the premier internet fact checking resources) to check out this story and it turns out to be an internet rumor and really completely made up.  Fred Rogers never served in the military and he had no tattoos.  So much for my getting a drasha out of that email.

But ….  Not to be deterred from getting my drasha – I’m telling you the story now – so …

In the parsha this week in the very first pasuk – the Torah tells us –

  וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק, בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם:  אַבְרָהָם, הוֹלִיד אֶת-יִצְחָק.

Rashi explains the seeming redundancy in this verse by telling us that the Torah is saying to us that Avraham and Yitzchak looked exactly the same.  Like father like son – they were the spitting image of each other.  Why did Hashem make them look so alike?  It was to dispel a rumor that was circulated by the Leitzanei HaDor – the jokers of the generation.  The rumor went like this – Avraham and Sarah were barren for so many years – and then Avimelech takes Sarah into his house and just like that – Sarah gets pregnant.  It must be that Avimelech is the real father and not Avraham.  They didn’t have DNA testing back then - But as Avraham and Yitzchak looked exactly like each other – you didn’t need Snopes to dispel that rumor.

Unfortunately the Leitzanei HaDor – the clowns or jokers of the generation – the scoffers the mockers and the cynics – hold sway in our modern age.  Late Night TV hosts, radio personalities, political cartoonists – are all in great demand.  And it is good to laugh – maybe now more than ever before.  But it is downright depressing and self defeating to be cynical about everything.  The proliferation of lies and half truths and scandal and fake stories makes us doubt everything we hear – and that is bad for the soul.   Unfortunately we have become a Dor of Leitzanim.  A generation of mockers.

Not only that, when it makes us question everything we hear – it can be dangerous.  We begin to lose the ability to tell the difference between what is true and what is not.

There is a famous saying  - ליצנות אחת דוחה אפילו מאה תוכחות  one derisive remark can undo 100 warnings.  One craven comment can destroy a ton of moral heavy lifting.  Rabbi Chaim Friedlander quotes the Alter of Kelm, R. Simcha Zissel Ziv as saying that not only can it destroy Tochacha – warning or reproof, it can also destroy Hochacha -proof or verifiable truth.

Mr. Rogers in his work with children – was a big proponent of honesty.  Talking about tough topics to children in a way they could understand it – but being honest and open.  We are living in a time when honesty and truth are under attack by those who would seek to mock us and manipulate us by their spreading lies and mockery.

So before you send that next scathing remark, cartoon or internet meme – think about the power of Leitzanus – of destructive joking and scoffing.  And think critically about what you read and what you believe – for sincerity, honesty and truth are all middot (character traits) which we should hold dear.

Wed, July 6 2022 7 Tammuz 5782