We live in the age of the celebrity. Almost everyone wants to be famous. So powerful is the lust for fame today that we’re the 1st generation that’s prepared to acquire it through personal humiliation. Not too long ago on tabloid talk shows like Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake people revealed their most embarrassing secrets—the affairs they were having, the money they had stolen, or the aliens that had abducted them—all in an effort to get their 15 minutes of fame. Today, do you see what people post on Facebook? How about those embarrassing tweets and YouTube videos that go viral in in a day—often causing havoc? Where does this lust for fame come from?
In today’s Torah portion we see a challenge to Moses’ leadership from his own family—his cousin Korach. Korach accuses Moses and his brother Aaron saying to them (Num. 16:3):
Korach—like Moses and Aaron—was also from a prominent Levite family. His resentment most likely began when Aaron and not he was appointed to be the High Priest. Then he was overlooked as Moses appointed cousin Elitzafon to be the head of K’hat—the leading Levite family. This made Elitzafon Korach’s superior—even though Korach’s father, Yitzhar, was older than Elitzafon’s father.
The problem with Korach’s argument is that there is no hierarchy of holiness because—as Rabbi David Aaron exquisitely puts it—“Every life is a divine mission. No one has a better or more important mission than the one Gd has given him/her to do—not someone else’s mission. And that’s where their potential holiness lies.”
The lust for fame can do crazy things to us. One man in Wisconsin killed 8 people and wrote to the police saying that he continued killing because after the 1st two murders his name no longer appeared in the newspapers!
Is it possible that the modern lust for fame actually stems from not feeling loved? Is it possible that we seek public approbation today because few receive private adulation? Is it possible that since relationships today lack passion and intimacy, we therefore seek to make love to the crowds?
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, in an insightful piece called, “A Celebrity to One,” writes: The essence of a relationship is to be a celebrity. But unlike public celebrity, here you are a celebrity only to one person. There is this man to whom you are famous. He puts your picture up on his wall. He saves your silly mementos. He can remember the 1st time you kissed him on the cheek. He stares at you when you are both out in public. When you walk into the room he drops everything to notice you. And he is totally absorbed by your presence.
Yes, we all want to be a celebrity. But there is healthy celebrity and unhealthy celebrity. Unhealthy celebrity is where you have 50,000 fans. But they’re fair-weather fans. They only admire you when you’re on top of your game. If you lose the Super Bowl, or if you lose your looks, or worse, if you lose your money, they abandon you.
Then there’s 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’s never going to drop you in favor of a younger starlet. If you go bankrupt or develop 3 chins, they’ll still stick around. If you suffer public ridicule, they’ll still not abandon you. You are forever valuable in their eyes. As you grow older, your picture won’t come down from their wall in favor of newer quarterback. You’re going to be up there in their eyes forever.
I can prove that one is a healthy form of fame while the other is not. Look at all the famous people in Hollywood who indeed have hundreds of thousands of adoring followers on twitter. 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? Hundreds of thousands of twitter followers but not one permanent enthusiast!
Rabbi Boteach makes another perceptive point: Since I…offer counsel to some famous people, I have noticed a curious phenomenon about being a celebrity. You start life wishing you were famous. You work hard at your music or acting career. Little by little it happens. People start reading about you…they see you in the media. Then they start recognizing you in the street. Before you know it, your dream has become a reality. You’re famous…
However, after achieving everything you hoped to achieve in terms of public recognition, you suddenly become a recluse. You get sick and tired of people bugging you in the streets…You begin to develop contempt for your public…You begin wearing dark sunglasses in public...
Friends whom you haven’t heard from in years are calling you up and you despise them because you know they’re only calling in order to use you. You begin to feel used by everybody…To think that you squandered your life on a group of people who showed little appreciation anyway and left you the moment your star began to fade.
Unhealthy fame always leads to reclusiveness. 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 become 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.
We can see this clearly in the contrast between the wife of Korach and the wife of On be Pelet—one of his chief followers. According to the Midrash it was his wife who encouraged Korach’s rebellion. As a couples therapist I can tell you that wives have enormous power to bring out the best or worst in their husbands.
The Midrash tells us that Korach’s wife lusted for fame even though they were the wealthiest family and very prestigious. Korach was a 1st cousin to Moses and Aaron, but that wasn’t enough for her. She desperately desired 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 rebellion.
On ben Pelet, is an example of how wives can bring out the best in their husbands. In fact, while he’s mentioned in the opening verse of Torah reading along with Korach, we don’t see his name again. What happened? The Midrash tells us it was his wife. She saw 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 his own fame. Wasn’t she enough for her husband?
My friends, in the final analysis, healthy fame may never get you your own television show. Nor will it get the matre-d’ to save you that exclusive table right near the fire place in your favorite restaurant. You won’t have strangers coming up to you on the street asking you for your autograph. But what healthy fame 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 with those that count the most. And, after all is said and done, isn’t that what’s most important. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis
Congregation Shaarei Shamayim
1600 Mt. Mariah Rd.
Atlanta, GA 30329
Author of: Dancing With God