In honor of the Aufruf of Jesse Zell for his forthcoming marriage to Robyn Greenberg this morning—a couple who met here at Shaarei Shamayim—let me ask: what is the secret of a happy marriage? No one’s really an expert—not even relationship therapists like me. When George Carlin died, I read that he was married for 36 years before his wife died and that he remarried and remained faithful until his death—not the usual celebrity fare that I will speak more about in a moment. Maybe he had some advice as t owhat constitutes a happy marriage. So I searched and searched but all I could find of what he wrote or said about marriage is: “‘I am’ is reportedly the shortest sentence in the English language. Could it be that ‘I do’ is the longest sentence?”
We live in the age of the celebrity, a time in which everybody wants to be famous and, therefore, so many post almost everything they do on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter or Tumblr. So powerful is the lust for fame, that we’re the 1st generation that’s even prepared to acquire it through personal humiliation as we see on some of those posts. Every day scores of people reveal their most embarrassing secrets—the affairs they’re having, the money they’ve stolen, the aliens that have abducted them. Where did this lust for fame come from?
In our Torah portion, Korach, the cousin of Moses and Aaron, wants their fame and honor so he challenges their authority saying, Ki kol ha-eyda kulam kedoshim uv’tocham Hashem, “All of the congregation, all of them are holy with Gd within them.” What Korah was saying was, “Moses and Aaron, you think you’re so special? My followers and I are just as holy and special as you and deserve the same celebrity status.”
Celebrity: The 1st truly famous man in history was arguably, Alexander the Great who was the most accomplished of his time. He conquered the known world from Greece to India in the 4th century BCE. In our time, however, the formula for celebrity includes not only one’s accomplishments, but scandal as well as we see in the likes of Courtney Love, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Tiger Woods, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and, of course, Bill Cosby.
One man in Wisconsin, who killed 8 people, wrote to the police saying that he continued killing because, after the 1st 2 murders, his name no longer appeared in the newspapers! Is it possible that this lust for fame actually stems from not feeling loved? Is it possible that many seek public adulation because few receive private admiration? Is it possible that, since relationships today lack passion and intimacy, we therefore seek to make love to the crowds?
Marriage—as Rabbi Shmuley Boteach once put it—is about “becoming a celebrity to one.” The essence of a relationship, he maintains, is to be a celebrity. But unlike public celebrity, here you’re a celebrity only to one person. There is this man, to whom you are famous. He puts your picture up on his cell phone home screen or his desktop. He saves your silly mementos. He can remember the 1st time you kissed him on the cheek. He stares at you, when you’re both out in public. When you walk into the room, he drops everything to notice you. And he’s totally absorbed by your presence. Yes, we all want to be a celebrity. But there is a healthy celebrity and an unhealthy celebrity.
Unhealthy celebrity is where you have 50,000 fans—or to use today’s parlance—followers. But they’re only fair-weather fans. They only admire you when you’re on top. If you lose the Super Bowl or your looks, or your money, they abandon you just as quickly as they embraced you.
But then there is healthy celebrity, which consists of having only one fan. But the difference is that this is a real fan, the kind of devoted fan that will never drop you in favor of a younger starlet. If you go bankrupt or develop 3 chins, they’ll still stick around. Your fame is not transitory in their eyes—it’s eternal. Your marketability does not determine your importance. You’re forever valuable in their eyes. And as you grow older, your picture will not come down from their wall, in favor of someone younger. You’re going to be up there, in their eyes, for all eternity.
And you know how I can prove that one is a healthy form of fame, while the other is not? It’s simple. Look at all the famous people in Hollywood who, indeed, have 50,000 fans. What they lack, however, is that one big admirer—a happy marriage, a stable relationship, a warm embrace to come home to. Isn’t it incredible that virtually all the famous people in Hollywood lack happy relationships? 50,000 fair-weather fans, but not one permanent enthusiast!
Here’s another point. Celebrities start life wishing they were famous. They work hard at their music or acting career. Little by little, it happens. People start reading about them in the newspapers. They see them on television and recognize them in the street. Before you know it, their dream has become a reality—they’re famous. They talk about them all over America—on Facebook on Twitter. Their name features in all the gossip blogs.
Suddenly, a curious phenomenon comes to pass. After achieving this public recognition, they get sick and tired of people bugging them in the streets. They develop contempt for their public. They wear dark sunglasses and a hoody because they don’t want to be recognized. They especially hate the paparazzi, which to them rhymes with Nazi.
Why does this happen? because they perceive everyone as wanting something from them without ever giving. They just take, take, take. They want to touch you, get your autograph, get a selfie with them and drop your name at parties. Friends whom you haven’t heard from in years are calling you up, and you despise them because you know they are only calling in order to use you. You’ve lived your whole life to impress them and once you’ve done it, you discover that they’re just not worth it.
But healthy fame leads to the exact opposite. When you find that one big fan that you’ve always been looking for, when you enter into a relationship, in which someone admires and cherishes you…instead of hiding, you learn to open up. Rather than becoming cynical, you learn to trust. This intimate and devoted fan that you’ve been fortunate to acquire doesn’t want to take anything from you. They only want to give. Your happiness becomes their happiness. You are the sun, and they are the planet which revolves around you. In the final analysis, healthy fame may never get you your own television show or 100,000 hits on YouTube. But what it will give you is this: the feeling that no matter what you do and where you go, you’ll always have a fan club right there in the privacy and comfort of your own home. And that’s truly amazing!
In our Torah portion, the Midrash claims that Korach’s wife was very ambitious. She and her husband were celebrities—perhaps the wealthiest family in all of Israel. But that wasn’t enough for her. She longed for the unhealthy celebrity—she wanted to be the wife of the king or the High Priest and so she stirred him up into a frenzy that ultimately led to his undoing.
Contrast that to the wife of one of Korach’s chief followers—On ben Pelet. In her we see a wonderful example of healthy celebrity—how to be a loving fan of one. In the opening verse of the Torah reading On ben Pelet is mentioned along with Korach and his rebellion. But we don’t see his name again—not even when the followers of Korach were later swallowed up by the earth. What happened? At the last moment he dropped out of the rebellion. Why?
The Midrash (Midrash Hagadol, Bam. 18:1) tells us it was because of his biggest fan—his wife. She was very wise and could see the selflessness of Moses and Aaron. She understood that if Gd chose them to lead the Jewish people, it would not be good to try to change that. She also saw right through Korach—that he was only out for himself.
The Midrash tells us that to prevent her husband from joining the rebellion she convinced him that, as his biggest fan, she knew that he was better than this rebellion and that he would gain nothing from it. She saved her husband and her entire family from the destruction because she was his biggest fan.
What does it take to be your husband’s or your wife’s biggest fan? It means being a fan to one person and being a celebrity to that person. The Hebrew word for love is ahava and it comes from the word hav (to give). If you want an enduring love you give to your celebrity every day—doing caring behaviors that show your love because your happiness is their happiness. As the Yiddish expression goes: “Happy wife, happy life.”
Yesterday a dear member of our shul passed away—Susi Schwarz. She was such a sweet soul and I will deeply miss her. Her husband Erwin passed away about 6 years ago. Standing at her bedside holding her hand recently, we spoke about Erwin and their 68-year marriage. She cried and said, “Rabbi, it seems like we met just yesterday.” Wow! After 68 years of marriage plus 6 years since he died, it seemed like yesterday!
I marveled at those powerful words and I realized the truth in them. A good marriage passes in the blink of an eye but a poor marriage, a marriage with little love, can seem like an eternity, like the refrain of George Carlin that, “’I do,’ is the longest sentence in the English language.” In the end we must make every day count, and never miss an opportunity to tell our celebrity: “I love you. I need you. You are my celebrity and I’m your biggest fan. I thank Gd for you.”
So what’s the secret of a happy marriage? Hey, maybe it’s being someone’s celebrity and their biggest fan. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis