Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783
September 25, 2022
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL
I was a latecomer to the phenomenon that is Ted Lasso. For those of you who are also unfamiliar with the show—and I do recommend it, and will try to keep my remarks spoiler-free—this is a streaming television series on the Apple TV Plus service starring comedian Jason Sudeikis. It’s the story of a college football coach from Kansas who moves to the UK to become the coach of a Premier League soccer team.
Now, this will shock many of you, I’m sure, but I’m not much of an expert on football or soccer. But the show is about much more than athletic competitions. It’s a fish out of water story, certainly, about Ted Lasso’s difficulty in making his aw, shucks homespun demeanor fit in a British context. More than that, it’s about relationships, and building connections in unexpected ways. It is, in my opinion, a masterful piece of storytelling, and many of the themes that have emerged in the two seasons we’ve had thus far of the show are themes that are pertinent to the enterprise that unfolds before us at this season in the Jewish calendar, when we stand on the precipice of a new year and strive to prepare ourselves for the challenges and opportunities that lay before us. I’m going to talk about some of the pivotal life lessons that one can take away from this series. As I said, I’ll do my best to avoid offering any major spoilers to key plot points.
From the beginning of the series, AFC Richmond, the team led by Coach Lasso, are the underdogs. They have difficulty playing cohesively as a team, and therefore they are losing games. The press, the fans, team management, and the players all pepper Coach Lasso with advice, insults, and complaints. But Ted insists that it is not about the number of points scored or the win-loss ratio that the team may amass over the course of the season. His philosophy is summed up in a one-word catchphrase: “Believe.”
Ted Lasso is so disarming in his demeanor that he begins to persuade you that believing is possible. In his case, this is not only limited to believing in the athletic endeavors of AFC Richmond, nor in the complex webs of relationships followed in the fictional universe constructed within the television series. Ted Lasso encourages viewers to believe even when the episode has ended and you’ve switched off your television.
“Believe” becomes a mantra for the team, and Ted creates a sign to hang in the locker room. But he doesn’t use money from one of the team’s corporate sponsors to purchase a professionally lettered sign executed by a graphic designer. He takes a piece of paper, hand-paints the word, and posts it crookedly above the door to his office. An implicit message from this visual is that believing is not always neat and orderly and conforming to everyone else’s expectations.
There’s a fine line—more than just a spelling distinction—between “believe” and “belief.” By urging those connected to the team to “believe,” Ted is asking them to take an active role, getting up and out and about to do the necessary work to manifest the world as they would like to see it.
If “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,” then the act of believing, hope’s not-too-distant cousin, is even more ephemeral and prone to fly away from us at a moment’s notice when it is shaken. But when we manage to believe in ourselves—what we might call “self confidence;” believe in others with whom we maintain some relationship—what we might call trust; and believe in a power greater than ourselves—what we might call faith, then we find the wisdom and strength to forge our path in this world.
Achieving self-confidence—believing in oneself and one’s ability to make an impact, can be challenging or even frightening. We may doubt whether we have the necessary skills or stamina to accomplish anything meaningful. We may feel too deeply rooted in old habits to move beyond them and grow in meaningful ways. In this season of introspection, we may engage in self analysis but imagine ourselves powerless to act upon the data that we glean. But internet author John Brown Spiers urges, “Believe in your own capacity to believe. Not to change. Not to improve. Those things can come later. Mere belief, frustrating and impossible, has to come first. You can’t do anything until you just Believe.”
When undergoing this self analysis—what Judaism calls cheshbon hanefesh, which literally translates to “an accounting of the soul” – it’s all too easy to become hypercritical. We may dwell obsessively on an interaction that we wish had gone differently, a decision that hindsight tells us was incorrect, or words spoken in sharpness or haste that we wish we could reclaim. We may get so caught up in this self-criticism of a minor incident that we regret that we internalize it as an innate flaw in our character. But here again Ted Lasso is instructive. In one episode, he urges one of the team’s key players not to get bogged down in minutiae. He claims that the happiest animal on earth is the goldfish, because its memory only lasts for ten seconds. While marine biologists may tell us that this is not scientifically accurate, Ted’s point is that we should strive not to let past disappointments define us, but rather we should believe in ourselves and in the promise of what tomorrow may bring us.
Once we’ve managed to shore up our self-confidence and believe in ourselves, the challenge is then to believe in the possibility of interactions with others. Over the past few years, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have adjusted the degree to which we relate to those outside our immediate circle. We may feel disconnected from those who once played an integral role in our lives. We may have felt let down by institutions we once held in high regard.
By the way, when I first wrote that last sentence about institutions, I was thinking of large companies and government organizations. But it’s possible that the disappointment hits closer to home. If you’ve felt at all let down by me or by this congregation in the past year, I ask that you please reach out to me after the high holidays, because I honestly hope to do my best to repair your trust in me and in this sacred community.
Beyond believing in the broader relationships that we may form with organizations with which we choose to affiliate, we put ourselves on the line by choosing to believe in the possibility of interpersonal relationships. We extend our hands and hearts to others because we believe that it is worth the effort—and, yes, sadly, the occasional heartache—to engage with others.
My friend and mentor, Rabbi Raymond Zwerin, notes that as one ages, this sort of believing takes on a different resonance. “When you believe as a senior,” he offers, “You don’t hesitate to call the one with whom you haven’t spoken in years. You ask, invite, [and] request. You challenge yourself to have faith in tomorrow even though acquaintance after friend after relative passes on. ‘Believe’ [in this context] means getting over the aches and discomforts and forcing oneself to keep moving. Believe means saying hello to strangers and welcoming new discussions […] Believe means getting dressed in the morning; for some that is believing that the day will be for living.” To expand on Rabbi Zwerin’s thoughts, whatever stage of life one finds oneself in, there is blessing in believing that there is another—or perhaps several others—who can enrich and enhance your life.
One of Ted Lasso’s mid-American mannerisms is to tell everyone around him, “I appreciate you.” It can be a disarming mechanism; there are times on the show when Ted speaks it to someone who is annoyed with him, and the simple phrase helps to defuse a good amount of the tension. I suspect that’s because each of us, at our core, wants to be appreciated. We want to know that we make a difference in this universe—that there is someone who cares about our ideas and ideals and passions and pains.
That level of trust is often difficult, particularly if we have been disappointed by those with whom we have shared such trust. But Judaism recognizes the significance of being in relationship with one another. The concept of a minyan, for instance, is rooted in part in the idea that worship in community can be more fulfilling than praying in isolation. The Mishnah teaches that even “when [only] two people sit together, and words of Torah pass between them, the Divine Presence is in their midst.” Ecclesiastes teaches “tovim hashnayim me-echad, two are better than one,” which is often seen to extol romantic relationships but can be further understood to be praising the interconnectedness of human beings. With all due respect to Jean-Paul Sartre, Judaism views other people as a blessing, not a burden.
When we trust others enough to allow them to give us their love and appreciation, and, in turn, when we express our love and appreciation to them, we affirm that we believe in the power of human interconnectedness.
I’ve spoken to enough of you over the past several years, months, and weeks to know that “believing” is tough for many of us right now. In a 2021 Pew study, 29% of Americans surveyed answered “none” when asked about their religious affiliation, as compared to 16% who had identified within that category in 2007. Oftentimes religious believing in particular—the way in which one believes in God or a power outside of one’s self—is disorganized, held together tenuously and precariously in much the same manner that Ted Lasso’s sign is perched haphazardly on the locker room wall.
But each of us is here this evening because we’ve put some stock in the power and gravity of believing, whether we believe in the importance of continuity of familial traditions, or whether we place stock in the notion that God expects us to be occupying these seats and engaging with the liturgy of these High Holy Days. And that we continue to act in this manner each year in accordance with how we believe testifies to our perseverance as individuals and as a people. Even as others mock or discredit our how and what we believe, we refuse to bend.
Believing and faith are not tools of magic; not all of the prayers that we utter during this High Holiday season will be answered in precisely the manner that we might hope. But in faith, in clinging steadfastly to what we believe, we may find the necessary inspiration that points us toward an answer, that drives us toward activism or action that can make a positive change.
Not all of us resonate with the same conception of Who or What God is. The Chasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev is said to have told an ardent non-believer, “I don’t believe in the God that you don’t believe in.” Perhaps when believing in God feels difficult, it is because we need to shift our paradigm of what we expect God to be doing for us and how we expect God to be intervening in our world. I’ll be coming back to this concept in other thoughts that I plan to share with you throughout these High Holidays, but for now suffice it to say that my personal theology rests on the conviction that God is just as perplexed and dismayed as we are by humans showing animosity toward one another, treating the environment with disdain, standing idly while our neighbors bleed, and other harmful acts we perpetrate against one another. To me, affirming faith in God means affirming that we have the opportunity and the responsibility to work in partnership with God to improve the situation here on earth, to work for the good and welfare of all of God’s creations.
I’ve mentioned to some of you over the years that one of the first homiletical lessons that we were given during our rabbinical training at Hebrew Union College was “don’t preach against the text.” By this, our teachers meant that we should not directly contradict the teachings of the Torah, but rather look for messages in the Torah that would support our point. Well, if tonight my text is Ted Lasso, I’m going to temporarily disregard the guidance of my professors and contradict its message in one way.
The opening theme of Ted Lasso builds on a chorus that proclaims, “Yeah, this might be all that you get/ Yeah, I guess this might well be it.” The lyrics are fitting for what we initially know about Ted Lasso’s character. But it’s a somewhat defeatist philosophy by which to live one’s life. In the arc of the show thus far—we’ve been promised at least one more season—Ted has pushed back against the attitude suggested by the theme. He’s shown that, through perseverance, we can indeed become more than what others thought we were capable of. A bright New Year is ahead of us. May we find self-confidence. May we learn to trust others. May we have faith in our relationship with the One Who drives the universe. May we learn to Believe.
 Dickinson, Emily, “Hope Is the Thing With Feathers” (314)
 John Brown Spiers, “Ted Lasso Makes Us Believe, Even When We Don’t Want To.” Published on The Gist July 29, 2021. Retrieved from https://gist.plex.tv/ted-lasso-makes-us-believe-even-when-we-dont-want-to/ , July 28, 2022.
 Personal correspondence with Rabbi Raymond Zwerin, September 22, 2022.
 Mishnah Avot 3:3
 Ecclesiastes 4:9. In context, the quote refers to
 Sartre infamously wrote “Hell is other people” in his 1944 work No Exit
 Smith, Gregory A. “About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults are Now Religiously Unaffiliated,” retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/12/14/about-three-in-ten-u-s-adults-are-now-religiously-unaffiliated/ July 7, 2022
 Mumford, Marcus and Tom Howe, “Ted Lasso Theme,” Warner Olive Music, LLC, 2020