I’m a creature of habit, I have a consistent daily routine, I like eating at roughly the same restaurants, I snack on the same foods (healthy or not), I drink the same drink…and I watch the same show, The West Wing, every night before I go to bed.
I prefer, no matter how many years since the show has aired, to live in a world where Jed Bartlet is president. I sleep better at night knowing that Tobey, Sam, Josh, and CJ are briefing the president and that Leo is making sure the trains run on time.
When so much of our world is out of my control, there is something extremely comforting by turning on a show that typically began with the world in utter chaos, but by the end, all is well we will live to see another day.
I say all of that because in April, I boarded a plane for Poland, where I was told there would be no Wi-Fi and the movies would be less than stellar. A friend suggested, gently, that perhaps I could try a new show. I had approximately 9 hours each way, perhaps I should listen to their advice.
The suggestion was to watch a new sitcom on Apple TV called Ted Lasso. I’ll be honest, I had heard good things when the show came out in 2020, but Football or soccer is not really my thing, and so I passed. Now I was about to be on a plane for close to 9 hours, with no Wi-FI and poor movies…I figured, why not give it a shot?
As luck would have it, I was awake the whole flight, not because of turbulence or nervousness (although there was a little) …but because I was taken by the Torah, the teachings of Ted Lasso.
Ted Lasso showed up in our living rooms at just the right time and with just the right message. He was a decent man, a bit awkward, but he dripped positivity and kindness. As a coach, he was a teacher who wants his students to believe in themselves, not a drill sergeant looking for perfection.
This morning, as we welcome in a New Year, I could think of nothing more important than the power of belief, of hope, thoughtfulness, decency, and forgiveness. And so, I ask that you indulge me for a few minutes as I share a few teachings that bring to light these points, not from Rabbi Shimon, Heschel, or Sacks, but from Coach Lasso.
Lesson 1 – “it’s the hope that kills you
At the end of the first season, Coach Lasso’s team is facing the prospect of losing its spot in the top-tier soccer league. The fans, and the players all want to believe the team has a shot to win the final game of the season, yet they are realists, they have doubts about whether they can pull it off. At a bar the night before the game, wondering why everyone is so glum, the charming bartender explains to Ted and his assistant coach that “it’s the hope that kills you” as if to say it may be best for the fans not to raise their hopes and expectations on the off chance their team fails, the loss will be all the more devasting.
The fans want to believe, but they fear that the more they believe, the higher their expectations grow, the worse the fall will be if and when their team loses. Coach Lasso calls a meeting before the final game, showing annoyance with this line of thinking. Ted explains that it’s not hope that kills, but the lack of hope that can destroy. Coach, in his unique way with words, and explains that he “believes in belief”. That having hope, and being all in is the only way to go. Lasso goes on to reference the 1980 Olympic Hockey victory over Russia, where Al Michaels asks “do you believe in Miracles” and Ted, knowing that his team is the underdog asks his players one by one whether they too believe in miracles. It wasn’t about winning or losing, it was about a mindset.
Coach Lasso’s teaching, not unlike Judaism, is also about having faith in things we cannot see. What sets this teaching apart and makes it so important is that full faith, whether it be in a divine being, a friend, partner, or even a sports team, requires you not to hedge that faith or belittle it by saying, “if I have faith and things go south, it will simply hurt more.” We have all done this, we make backup plans, and we say to ourselves, “I tried my best, whatever happens, happens” we look at our favorite sports teams on the brink of elimination and say, “they had a good year” we try and soften the blow if things go bad, yet in doing so we limit the high we get when things go right.
What would it look like for this year, instead of grandiose goals that never get met, if we made the commitment to have faith in something? It does not have to be a higher being, perhaps a friend, a cause, or even a sports team. Not to worry about what happens if and when things go bad, but to be fully entrenched in the possibility of things going right.
Lesson 2 -Forgiveness
From Day 1 of Coach Lasso’s arrival in England, his boss Rebecca, the owner of the team, had been trying to sabotage him and the team. The team was owned by Rebecca’s ex-husband, and her sole wish was for the team to implode, to become the laughingstock of the soccer world as she believed this would be the sweetest form of revenge upon her ex-husband. Rebecca makes every “poor” management decision she can to sink the team and even attempts to go after Ted’s reputation.
At one point, Rebecca’s motives become clear to all, and she owes Ted an apology. Rebecca walks down to the coach’s office, explains what she did, and tells Ted she is sorry. Before even allowing Ted to speak, Rebecca tells Ted that she would understand if he wanted to go to the press and tell them about her actions or even quit. Instead, Ted got up from his chair, looked her in the eye and said, “I forgive you”. The scene is brilliant, in that moment the last thing Rebecca thought Ted would say is “I forgive you”. Her response to him was of utter confusion, she turned to him and said “What, why?” She didn’t know what to do, it was almost as if the concept of repentance, the idea of Teshuva, the thought that someone in this day and age would forgive was totally foreign.
Rebecca, just like Ted, was going through a divorce and instead of being mad or vengeful toward her or her actions, Ted looked her in the eyes and said, “divorce is hard and makes you do crazy things”. He showed empathy, not hostility, he showed grace not vengeance, because he knows that one is perfect!
Every year during the High Holy Days we sit, and we talk about forgiveness. We teach at length about asking for forgiveness, making amends with those we have wronged over the past year. We explain that the next ten days are the “tax season” of forgiveness. Yet for all the talk we do about “asking” for forgiveness, we talk very little about “granting” or giving forgiveness for wrongs that have been done to us.
What if this year, in addition to asking for forgiveness, we thought long and hard about one person who has asked us for forgiveness and we couldn’t give it OR the person who wronged us yet never asked for forgiveness. In some cases that person may not even be aware they caused us pain. Nevertheless, what if, over the next 10 days, we flip the script and acknowledge that life is hard, no one is perfect, and having empathy is much better for the soul than aggravation. To see the power of looking into another person’s eyes and simply saying “I forgive you”.
Be curious, not judgmental.
This final teaching is one that I am not ashamed to say has changed my life. The scene is a bit too hard to explain but suffice to say Coach Lasso is in a bar and gets asked to play darts. The other player being a bit sure of themselves, asks Ted if he likes darts, but then simply stops being curious because he is sure of his own skills and assumes, by looking at Ted, that he will be no competition.
The scene unfolds with the following monologue: Ted says:
“Guys have underestimated me my entire life and for years I never understood why – it used to really bother me. Then one day I was driving my little boy to school, and I saw a quote by Walt Whitman, it was painted on the wall there and it said, ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’ I like that.” (at which point Ted throws a dart.)
“So, I get back in my car and I’m driving to work and all of a sudden it hits me – all them fellas that used to belittle me, not a single one of them was curious. You know, they thought they had everything all figured out, so they judged everything, and they judged everyone. And I realized that their underestimating me – who I was had nothing to do with it. Because if they were curious, they would’ve asked questions. Questions like, ‘Have you played a lot of darts, Ted?’” (Ted throws another dart.)
“To which I would have answered, ‘Yes sir. Every Sunday afternoon at a sports bar with my father from age ten until I was 16 when he passed away.’ Barbecue sauce.” (At which point Ted throws a double bullseye to win the game.) (Season 1, Episode 8)
This is a teaching we all need to learn. It’s not clear that the line can actually be attributed to Whitman, but that is a conversation for another day. What is striking is that Ted’s opponent asks a question at the beginning of the scene “do you like darts” and never asks another question. He wasn’t curious, it wasn’t an open-ended question seeking to learn more, the individual thought he knew all he needed to know about Ted to beat him. How many times do we look at someone and assume we know all there is to know about them. I would venture to say all too often.
The idea that we would judge a person but outward appearance and not by what is inside them is antithetical to Judaism. In Pirkei Avot we are taught “Don’t look at the container, but at that which is in it” (4:20). The container or vessel the rabbis would have us understand has little to do with what is inside of it. The bottle could be beautiful, and the wine be terrible, just as the bottle could be plain and simple yet the wine is superb. Perhaps said another way, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Ted implores us to ask questions, open-ended questions to learn more about people, to be curious, and to show empathy, not judgment.
This teaching also has a corollary that also speaks to our high holy day season. Coach Lasso is telling us to be curious, not judgmental towards those we meet, friends, family, even strangers…but what about ourselves. I would contend as we live in a time with an ever-increasing amount of depression and anxiety, that we, too need to be curious of our actions but not judgmental. What does it do for our self-esteem or confidence when we screw something up or make a poor decision only to scold ourselves or call ourselves stupid. The same lesson that we should “be curious, not judgmental” still applies. Be curious about why you did something, take a moment and honestly think about, but to cast judgment does little good to help us grow from the experience.
I am well aware that sermons that reference pop culture have a shelf life of 5 minutes, but the lessons I shared this morning do not belong to Ted Lasso, they come straight out of our tradition and sacred texts.
Have faith – all of us have something or someone we have faith in. make the decision to believe in it, with all your heart. Yes, you may get hurt if things don’t work, but the joy that comes from leading a life where belief is at the center far surpasses a life that is always hedging against “what if this or that happens”.
Learn to forgive – we talk so much about asking for forgiveness because its hard. We did something wrong, and now we need to go up to that person and say we are sorry and we are scared to death of what they may say. Perhaps asking for forgiveness, saying we are sorry wouldn’t be so hard if we believed that the person we have wronged may have the grace, the compassion, the understanding to say, “I forgive you”. We live in a society right now where saying “I was wrong” or “I’m sorry” is seen as a sign of weakness…that simply isn’t Jewish.
Be curious, not judgmental – as we enter the new year, what would it take for us to not only be more curious about those around us, those in our Beth El community and our greater community, but also to pause and be curious about our own actions? To take a moment and ask one more question, to try and learn something new.
I believe with all my heart that if we enter 5783 and focus on these three lessons, our congregation and community will be in a better place when we come together next year.
May we all merit the ability to be written in the book of life, and may we all have a happy, healthy, and sweet new year.
L’shanah tovah u’metukah