Erev RH 2023 / 5784 “Say little, do much, and greet everyone whom you encounter with a cheerful countenance.” (Pirkei Avot 1:15)
This has got to be one of my favorite Jewish sayings of all time, a priceless gem plucked from Pirkei Avot, a third-century collection of meaningful and easy-to-memorize Rabbinic teachings included in the Mishna. I have used this particular quote when training camp counselors at a Jewish summer camp about how their actions far exceed their words, as well as when I speak to the ‘tweens’ at my school about how they should try their best not to walk through the hallways with a dour look of disinterest adorning their face. The crux of this tripartite truism, however, is that the deeds we perform and the behaviors we exhibit speak far louder and truer than any words we might utter, and that no matter who crosses our path, we should endeavor to greet them with a simple smile and sunny disposition, as the mere act of turning the corners of our mouth upward can have the dual effect of brightening the day (or at least, that singular moment) for both the smiler and the smiled upon. Our outward expression invites others into dialogue and relationship, which in turn may be just the right catalyst for replenishing our inner self with feelings of positivity and hope.
Seldom do you meet someone who walks through life with such unflinching positivity and vivacity as described here. So imagine my surprise when a few months into the pandemic-that-shall-not-be-named, when many of our spirits were understandably downcast and downbeat, our physical and mental health hanging by a thread, a ray of sunshine personified burst onto the scene and embodied this quote to the fullest.
And to think that I met him on AppleTV.
Of course it wasn’t just me who started watching Ted Lasso at that moment. Pretty soon, legions of fans around the world began to tune in weekly to check on their new favorite – albeit fictional – football club, AFC Richmond, led by the lovable Coach Lasso, an improbable character who comes from an American football background before crossing the pond to manage a football team of an entirely different sort. It’s as much a fish-out-of-water story as the Book of Jonah that we will be reading on Yom Kippur afternoon.
What endears Ted Lasso not only to his players, but to the multitudes of virtual ‘Ted-heads’ throughout the globe, is his unwavering positive outlook on life, his sunny disposition, and his investment in the growth of his players and colleagues as human beings first, regardless of the outcome of a given match. And, much like the Rabbinic sages who contributed their wisdom teachings to Pirkei Avot centuries ago, Ted never ceases to sprinkle his short, pithy, and surprisingly poignant takes on life, forgiveness, effort and empathy into everyday conversation.
So, on the cusp of this new year, as we carve our own path toward self-improvement and “playing well with others”, I humbly submit to you a hand-picked selection of some of my favorite Lasso-isms and their Rabbinic parallels from Pirkei Avot. Let’s go ahead and call it Pirkei Ted: the Lessons of Lasso.
Lesson #1: “Taking on 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.”
And its Rabbinic counterpart: בֶּן הֵא הֵא אוֹמֵר, לְפוּם צַעֲרָא אַגְרָא: Rabbi Ben Hei Hei said: According to the effort is the reward. (Pirkei Avot 5:23)
While I’d be happy to spend the rest of the night exploring how I could legally change my name to “Rabbi ben Hei Hei”, the lesson of Lasso here is that we ought to set goals for ourselves that provide some authentic sense of challenge. Staying nestled snugly in our comfort zone won’t do, won’t result in the growth outcomes we desire. Be it a professional or personal goal, a bad habit we are trying to break, or a relationship we wish to mend, we can’t go the easy route that we have previously trod upon. Sometimes we must climb the steepest slope, or in equestrian terms, overcome the highest hurdle, for us to feel that we have really tackled the issue at hand. It will take some strength of body and strength of heart, but the reward or sense of accomplishment may be that much sweeter if we don’t shy away from the hard stuff.
Lasso-ism #2: In a first-season showdown at the local pub, in which Ted challenges Rupert, the adulterous ex-husband of Ted’s boss, friend and owner of the team Rebecca to a game of darts, Ted shares this beautiful reflection before throwing one last bullseye:
“Guys have underestimated me my entire life. And for years, I never understood why. It used to really bother me. But then one day, I was driving my little boy to school, and I saw this quote by Walt Whitman, and it was painted on the wall there. It said, ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’ I like that.”
In the words of the Rabbis – עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר, וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת Make for yourself a teacher, and acquire for yourself a friend, and judge all people with the scale weighted in their favor. (Pirkei Avot 1:6)
Ted reminds us to reserve our instant judgments about a person or situation, and turn that propensity for criticism into one of curiosity. In an age of clicks and likes and shares and snaps which many of us do instinctively without a moment to consider the human beings on the other side of a post or photograph, let us ensure that we take the time to forge real relationships with those around us, to ask questions before crystallizing our opinions, and to do so, from a place of inquiry and interest rather than swift judgment.
The Rabbis too emphasize that we should seek out people who can be for us both teacher AND friend, coach AND confidant. And when it does come time to make a judgment, lean toward giving others the benefit of the doubt until and unless they have squandered that right. ‘Be curious, not judgmental’ says Ted, quoting the transcendentalist poet Whitman. For if we are not curious, we remain ignorant. Ignorance that can so often breed fear, mistrust, discrimination and division. But if curiosity prevails, we might not be so quick to underestimate others, or the possibility that they could be a source of knowledge, of leadership, or even support for us. Instead let us retrain ourselves to view every person or situation as a promising teacher and a potential friend.
Lasso Lesson #3: Early in the first season of the show, the character Sam Obisanya, an up-and-coming player on the club, makes a mistake during practice, and the egocentric superstar Jamie Tartt relentlessly berates him in front of everyone. Ted soon pulls Sam aside and teaches him an invaluable lesson: “Sam, you know what the happiest animal in the world is? It’s a goldfish. It’s got a 10-second memory. Be a goldfish!” Sam is visibly confused, but eventually, the message clicks: Don’t dwell on your mistakes. Don’t let them deter you from making forward progress. Instead, be a goldfish; learn from your mistakes and then move on.
I can’t help but hear the Rabbis add the following: אַל תְּבַקֵּשׁ גְּדֻלָּה לְעַצְמְךָ, וְאַל תַּחְמֹד כָּבוֹד, יוֹתֵר מִלִּמּוּדְךָ עֲשֵׂה Do not seek greatness for yourself, and do not covet honor. Practice more than you learn. (Pirkei Avot 6:5)
For the Rabbis, the act of daily study, the ongoing process of learning, far outweighs the recognition one may receive after showing themselves to be an expert or master of the material. Much like the athlete on the field or the student in the classroom, one must not fixate on how they rank against teammates, peers or coworkers of varying talents and capacities. We can’t beat ourselves up if we hit a stumbling block, make an errant pass, or fail to ace the test.
While we may not necessarily have the blissful forgetfulness of a goldfish, we do have the ability to learn from our missteps and recalibrate our efforts so we can inch closer to success the next time around. Our joy and self-satisfaction should not be wholly dependent on either the accolades or admonishment from others; rather, it is we who must see ourselves as worthy and essential parts of the whole, accepting of our imperfections, and understanding that we are all at various stops along the continuum of growth and self-improvement.
Lasso-Lesson #4: “I don’t know about you, Coach, but I hope that either all of us or none of us are judged by the actions of our weakest moments but rather by the strength we show when and if we’re ever given a second chance.”
One of the more interesting character arcs in the series belongs to the character of Nathan Shelley, or “Nate the Great”, as Ted calls him. Beginning as the water boy and clubhouse attendant, Ted takes special interest in Nate’s brilliant mind for on-field strategy, and quickly promotes him to a member of the coaching staff. However, over the course of the second season, Nate increasingly feels abandoned and disrespected by his one-time mentor, and in a final act of betrayal, he leaks Ted’s acute anxiety attacks to the media while leaving to coach Richmond’s rival club, West Ham, now owned by the villainous Rupert. The final season sees Nate on a roller coaster of a redemptive arc, toggling back and forth between Rupert’s lascivious and “win-at-all-costs” mentality and Ted’s insistence that everyone deserves a second chance, at football and at life. (Unless you’re Danny Rojas, and then “Football IS life!”)
While even those of you who haven’t watched a minute of the show can probably guess which side Nate ends up on – it is a comedy, after all – the lesson about granting others and ourselves a second chance is no less profound. In fact, that is the central theme of this and every Jewish New Year! We engage in the work of teshuvah, of repentance and renewal, so that we can return to our truest selves. Not the self tempted by economic or social standing, not the self that harbors grudges or is consumed by guilt. No, our teshuvah can only proceed forward if we are not solely judged by our weakest moments in the past year, but in fact elevated by the courage and resilience it takes to strive to be better. To forgive ourselves. To forgive those who have hurt us. Or as the Rabbis might have put it, יָפָה שָׁעָה אַחַת בִּתְשׁוּבָה וּמַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה, מִכָּל חַיֵּי הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. More precious is one hour in repentance and good deeds in this world than all the life of the world to come. (Pirkei Avot 4:17)
And finally, last but not least, Lasso-lesson #5 for the year 5784 – (hold up the yellow “BELIEVE” poster) You didn’t think I would forget the power of this one word, did you? Believe. The one-word mantra that Coach Lasso hangs above the exit to the locker room, so that every team member must face it before heading onto the pitch.
Believe. The one-word affirmation that is so easy to utter and yet so, so difficult for us humans to follow in our busy, messy lives, with our busy, messy relationships, and our busy, messy schedules on this busy, messy planet.
Believe. The one-word reminder that the present is not fixed in stone, and that our future can and will be brighter, if we just…
Believe. In Hebrew, the word for “belief” or “faith” is emunah, which shares the same root as the word we say in response at the end of a blessing – Amen! Interestingly, it is also related to the verb l’hit-amen, which means, “to practice.” Perhaps Coach Lasso is more of a Hebrew scholar than I thought. Because only through practice will his players develop a belief in themselves and a trust in each other to reach their individual and shared goals.
While the Rabbis speak more about ma’asim (actions) than emunah (belief) in the verses of Pirkei Avot, in some way, every single teaching requires some bit of faith, some belief that these pearls of wisdom can help form the blueprint to a better, more humble and more fulfilling life. They require a belief in one’s self, one’s community, and in God to help us find our place and our purpose as we enter the next ‘season’ of our lives.
So how about this one…שֶׁאֵין לְךָ אָדָם שֶׁאֵין לוֹ שָׁעָה וְאֵין לְךָ דָבָר שֶׁאֵין לוֹ מָקוֹם There is no person that doesn’t have their hour, no thing in this world that does not have its place. (Pirkei Avot 4:3)
May the episodic nature of the year ahead, with all the triumphs and valleys of a sports season, give us an opportunity to believe in ourselves as much as our trusted teachers, friends and family members believe in us.
May we challenge ourselves to climb new heights.
May we be slow to judgment and brimming with curiosity.
May we be like goldfish – and just keep swimming forward.
And may we be blessed with second chances, a forgiving heart, and as Coach Lasso models time and time again, a smile at the ready for the next person whom we encounter.