I Found Everything I Need For Yom Kippur In One Episode Of Ted Lasso

Spoiler Alert: This post features major plot points from Ted Lasso, Season 2, Episode 8.

Yom Kippur for me–and I’m guessing for many of you–feels like a hard day to access. Even as someone who is actively engaged with Jewish spiritual learning and ritual in my own life, I struggle to connect with the traditions and meanings of Yom Kippur. Maybe it has to do with living with Type 1 diabetes for 40+ years (which can make fasting a challenge) or facing feelings of mortality as a cancer survivor. Whatever factors contribute, I search every year for some kind of teaching to make Yom Kippur feel meaningful in some way–and often come up empty.

This year, coming through the pandemic and some very personal losses and health challenges, I leaned deeply into the month of Elul as a way to reflect on what I wished to let go of from 5781 and about what my prayers hold for the coming year. I created an Elul playlist that I listened to every morning to help me get into this mindset and I spent time writing about my hopes and prayers for the year ahead.

When Rosh Hashanah came last week, I felt ready. We made an outdoor Labor day/Rosh Hashanah barbeque feast and hosted my sister-in-law whom we hadn’t seen in person during the pandemic. I led outdoor children’s services at my synagogue and then my family and I drove to the beach for a magical Tashlich ritual. It was one of the most beautiful holidays that I remember…especially poignant since last year, my mother died just before Rosh Hashanah, and this year, I held her spirit close to me through all that I experienced.

And then Rosh Hashanah was over. I landed in the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur–when we engage in personal teshuvah–feeling uncertain. When I thought of Yom Kippur and what work I needed to focus on for my personal atonement, mostly ideas for the fish plate I’m going to prepare for break-fast came to mind.

Then…as sometimes happens when I’m ready, a teacher appeared. Well, a few teachers, actually: the amazing actors and writers of Ted Lasso, a series my family (including my 84-year-old father and 16-year-old kid) have been enjoying together through the pandemic. If you haven’t seen it yet, Ted is an American football coach who is brought over to work for a fictional British soccer team, AFC Richmond, as a setup. Ted practices what some of my favorite meditation teachers call ‘Radical Kindness’ and not only forgives Rebecca, the team’s owner who initially sets him up, but inspires the players, coaches, and everyone involved in the team to bring the best versions of themselves to Richmond.

Last Friday, watching Season 2, Episode 8 engaged me in just the kind of deep reflection about forgiveness and vulnerability that I was looking for to help me prepare for Yom Kippur. While I could write about the entire episode, I’m going to highlight three moments that evoked a deep response in me and that I hope will support you, too, in your personal teshuvah for Yom Kippur.

  • The circle: In this episode, Richmond is playing rival team Manchester City at none other than Wembley stadium. Just before the games, Ted Lasso brings the other coaches and Leslie Higgins (the team’s communication director) together and with their hands joined together, Ted shares that he stepped out of the action at Richmond’s last game not because he was suffering from food poisoning but because he was experiencing a panic attack. His friends react with understanding…but instead of stepping out of the circle, each one of them takes a moment to share a way that they messed up or were less than perfect. Ted’s vulnerability with the people closest to him inspires the courage for each of them to become vulnerable. This moment resonated deeply with me, as someone who has often struggled with perfectionism. It made me think of the teaching from Pirke Avot–Acquire for yourself a friend and how deep, honest sharing with our friends can lead to real growth. That is teshuvah that I value doing in an ongoing way with my close friends.
  • The hug: Another powerful moment in the show comes when after Richmond loses, player Jamie Tartt’s abusive father comes into the locker room to taunt and shame his son in front of his teammates. Jamie offers his father several opportunities to back off and leave before finally losing his patience and hitting him. In the awkward moment after this incident, Roy Kent, who has had a contentious relationship with Jamie through the series, comes forward and wraps Jamie in a full-on embrace. It has been Roy’s ongoing work, seeing the positive influence that he can have on others, that motivates him to put their past rivalry behind and simply be present for Jamie when he is in need. This example deeply moved me, reminding me about how powerful it is to see the humanity in people in our lives whom we struggle with. The Torah teaches us that every human being is created b’zelem Elohim or created in God’s image…something that I forget to see in others whom I find challenging. That moment of simply being present between Roy and Jamie brought this teaching to life in a way that I will remember.
  • The phone call: Finally, at the end of the show, Ted himself reaches the moment when he is able to tell his therapist, Dr. Sharon, whom he has previously deflected, about the source of his pain–that his own father died from suicide when Ted was 16. After seeing some of Dr. Sharon’s own vulnerability surfaced earlier in the episode, Ted is able to finally release the blocks that have prevented him from engaging in therapy. Seeing him reach this breakthrough filled me with great compassion for the character–and reminded me how hard the work of teshuvah, turning, changing, growing, letting go, apologizing to ourselves and to others, really is.

No wonder I sort of shy away from Yom Kippur–this work isn’t easy stuff! But this year, when I listen to the plaintive sounds of Kol Nidre, I will remember my friends from Richmond and enter the day with compassion for whatever my Yom Kippur brings…for my loved ones, my community, and for myself.

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