August 5, 2009
A Loss Worth Noting
Parashat Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)
This summer’s “cultural news” has been dominated by the deaths of several particularly prominent celebrities: Ed McMahon, who entered our homes for years as Johnny Carson’s sidekick. Farrah Fawcett, whose pin-up poster sold more than 12 million copies in the 1970s and adorned the dorm rooms of a generation, and whose hairstyle sent millions of women to stylists pleading to “look like Farrah.” Michael Jackson, who was performing song and dance from as early as 5 years old and would emerge as the pre-eminent Jackson family entertainer, selling more than 750 million albums. Billy Mays, the ever-smiling TV pitchman. Walter Cronkite, regarded during his prime as the most trusted man in America.
These deaths offer a glimpse into fame’s fleeting nature.
When Fawcett died, TV networks began preparing to preempt regular nightly programming for documentaries remembering her life: the hairdo, the poster, the marriage to and divorce from Lee Majors of “The Six Million Dollar Man” and the year on “Charlie’s Angels.” Ryan O’Neal, her longtime companion, stated that while there are many “celebrities,” Ms. Fawcett was a “star.” Yet, remarkably, her star was eclipsed the very day she died, as media remembrance rapidly shifted to Jackson when his passing leaked that afternoon. Indeed, Jackson’s death set off a veritable panic in our region. On the Hollywood Walk of Fame, mourning throngs placed wreaths and wept at Michael Jackson’s star in the cement — not realizing they were mourning at the star of the wrong Michael Jackson, a radio talk host. Meanwhile, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were en route.
Amid the glare — and now the investigations into Jackson’s glommers — it is worthwhile pausing to learn from it all.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moshe Rabbeinu tells the nation that our Creator, “the great, mighty, and awe-inspiring God ... does not [show favor and] regard faces and does not take bribes. [Rather,] He [assures fair] judgment for an orphan and widow and loves a stranger, to give him bread and a garment” (Deuteronomy 10:17-18). Commenting on these words, Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch said that Hashem “only values the true human value of men and finds no substitute for true human worth either in social position or in descent, nor in intellectual superiority and talents. In His demands for His laws of morality, He pays no regard to social position and does not allow Himself to be bribed by intellectual genius.”
Interesting, because during the same summer that these celebrities died, so did Esther. Esther never performed in concert at an arena. She did not appear on television and was not circulated on posters. But she personally touched the lives of hundreds of people she modestly met.
With her husband and friends, she regularly visited the spinal-injuries ward of a military hospital in Long Beach, where she brought friendship and companionship to soldiers whose service to our nation has helped us remain free. She visited other servicemen and women in San Diego, where she brought garments that she personally hand-knitted for their children. She cooked and baked for her synagogue’s Shabbat lunch. She was an extraordinary grandmother and a loving mother. And throughout the years, she steadily sought out rabbis and classes in pursuit of knowledge and spirituality.
Her journey drew her along the great spectrum of Jewish knowledge. She found a Reform rabbi in Burbank who touched her life, then a Conservative rabbi who brought another level of wisdom, then an Orthodox rabbi teaching Torah at a college-extension program. Moving southward, she found rabbis in Venice who expanded her learning opportunities, and then, after joining a lovely retirement community in Laguna Woods, found yet another advanced Torah class that offered her a new level of learning. She never stopped learning, never stopped growing — and Esther never stopped giving.
Many seek fame, measuring success by the numbers who follow their Tweets and visit their blogs. Others orbit around famous people whose hands they touch — “I won’t wash my hand for a week!” — or treasure the “personalized” autograph or the photograph with someone famous suitable for mantel display. But our Creator teaches what He values most: not the fame of the face but the inner quality of character; not perceived social position, prominence of social descent, nor even intellectual genius but excellence of character and purity of soul.
Jon and Kate do not matter. Britney, Paris and Madonna are irrelevant. Heidi, Spencer and Lauren — well, whatever. But Esther was real, gave so much under the radar to so many. She lived 78 years without stirring chaos — only a life devoted to her husband of some half a century, to her children, to her community and to those who have served our nation. Esther was the real star whom we lost this summer.
And that’s the way it is.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com.