Today, November 26, 2022 is the 100th birthday of Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts. In tribute to him and to his extraordinary talent, I would like to share a sermon that I delivered in 2006 and published as part of my book The Long Way Around: Stories and Sermons from a Life’s Journey:
WISDOM FROM THE COMICS
The source for my remarks today is not the Torah. But it has earned its own standing for me as a critical source of learning. For decades it has been a font of wisdom, insight, and meaning and will remain, I am sure, a source of learning and joy for generations to come.
The source features situations to which we can all relate, introduces us to characters with whom we can all identify, showcases the talents and the weaknesses of human beings we all know, and always seems so perceptively to reflect the reality of our struggles to make sense out of our world.
We know the characters so well for they resemble us. Like us, they populate a world which at once is too big for them and yet which is just the right size. That they are children reminds us of our subservience to a presence greater than us. That they are in a world without visible adults reminds us that we decide our own destiny and cannot directly see that presence. We must depend on ourselves and on our own limited intelligence and experience to make sense of a world which is so rapidly changing around us as we grow.
And we owe all of this insight to one man, one genius who, by sharing his talent with the world and displaying his soul so publicly, changed all of our lives. This man’s name was Charles Schulz.
I don’t imagine there is anyone who can honestly say: “I don’t like Peanuts.” Other art forms are more dramatic and more brilliant, but our world has never been the same since Charlie Brown came on the scene.
While I could go on for hours about my favorite Peanuts strip, I will share with you only one gem: my favorite Charlie Brown cartoon.
Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy are lying on their backs looking up into the sky and Lucy asks the others to tell her what they see in the cloud formations.
Linus talks about the clouds looking like a map of British Honduras, the profile of a noted sculptor and “the stoning of Stephen … I can see the apostle Paul standing there to one side.”
And Lucy says: “Uh huh, that’s very good. What do YOU see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?”
And Charlie Brown says: “Well, I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsey but I changed my mind.”
Charlie Brown’s answer at first seems so sad. You can’t but feel pity for him. He feels completely out of his league.
But then we notice something. Charlie Brown isn’t “thinking” this. He is saying it. He might have “changed his mind” but he said it anyway. I don’t think this is a sign of his well-documented “wishy-washiness.” Rather, I think it is a brilliant statement: “I was going to say it but changed my mind, but I honestly think you need to hear it anyway.” He looked at a younger friend who had seized the moment and impressed everyone with all that he knew, and Charlie Brown still said his simple piece and I love him for it.
We need to think deeply about Judaism. Our Judaism needs to grow as we grow. We need, to the best of our ability, to look at the forms around us and utter statements of wisdom, linking events of today to those in the past, rattling off the names and ideas of the Jewish philosophers and artists, the thinkers and the poets, and relate them to that which swirls around us. We need to look up into the sky and understand the wisdom of the ages.
But we need as well to remember that the wisdom of the ages is sometimes found in the simple stirrings of the human heart, in seeing the duckies and the horsies around us and not being afraid to say so. Wisdom can be found in seeing this world with childlike eyes no matter how old those eyes might be, in seeing and being satisfied with simple answers to complex questions, relating to a Judaism of the heart and the childlike wonder and joy of the world.
Sometimes, I fear, in our zeal to bring great meaning to our Judaism, we make it too difficult. Others often raise the bar so high that we are not comfortable responding, feeling that what we can add is not appreciated and not valued. Like Charlie Brown, we may feel like we should change our minds about saying what we feel. Unlike him, we may in fact swallow our words and remain silent.
May we always continue our serious investigation of all that Judaism is and all that it can be. May we struggle with Torah and grapple with ideas. May we fret or, God willing, rejoice over population studies and look for new spiritual awakenings. May we make great plans for ensuring our people’s future and bringing meaning to a new generation of Jews.
But we deprive ourselves when we do this. For the answers to our deepest questions as Jews, and as human beings, are often to be found in the simplest words and in the simplest, purest meaning. Those ideas can be voiced by anyone, no matter how much or how little they know about the intricacies of our faith, the language of our people, the words of ancient rabbis, or the current sociological theories.
May we also find plenty of time to lie on our backs in the cool grass, look up into the sky and see the simplest of visions and then have the confidence to share them with others.
As we look for role models around us, let us learn from those whose examples shine for us in our contemporary world as well as those who came before us. And let us always look for role models in unexpected places.
And so let us learn.
From Schroeder, who played the most beautiful piano music with his talented hands on a toy piano, let us learn to take the simple instruments we have: our hands, our voices, our hearts, and make the most beautiful music, rising above all of our limitations to make the best use of the talents we have been given.
From Linus, who carried his security blanket everywhere, let us learn to treasure the things which bring us security in the world: holding tight to family, friends, and faith to help us steer our way through the difficult days ahead.
From Lucy, who showed brash chutzpah, let us learn to face this world with confidence but let us figure out a way to leave the arrogance behind and make room for others and respect them.
From Pig Pen, who perpetually walked in a cloud of dust, let us really be a part of this world, let us get dirty helping others, let us feel the earth between our fingers and our toes, and let us rejoice in a love of the world we live in.
From Charlie Brown, who always came back for more, let us learn to trust even if we get hurt on occasion, learn to dream even if the rest of the world laughs, and learn to get back on the pitcher’s mound again even after we get hit so hard that it knocks us over.
Finally, from Snoopy, let us love our homes, let us love our meals, and let us always dance with joy and always, always let us dream great things.