I was sitting at the gate recently, waiting to board a plane, when a man walked right past me. Something about his look and walk made him seem like he was a “somebody.” I didn’t think anything of it until a few minutes later when I noticed that people were beginning to approach him for autographs and then stood in line to take a picture with him.
I asked a fellow passenger sitting near me if he knew who the person was. He said somewhat incredulously, “You don’t know who that is?! That is Jeremy Wade, the extreme fisherman and host of Discovery Channel’s show ‘River Monsters.’” He jumped up to get in line to take a picture he could put on his Facebook page with a celebrity and thereby prove that he too was a “somebody” by association.
I have a confession to make. For a brief second—and I mean really just a millisecond—I contemplated going over to say hello and get a picture as well. Thankfully, my sanity was immediately restored and I realized, “Why in the world would I take a picture with someone who may be a very nice man, but moments ago I had no idea who he was?”
The experience humored me until I boarded the plane. Here I have a second confession to make. I actually read the airline’s American Way magazine and I was glad that I did. It contained an article that substantiated the experience I had just had. Celeb 4 A Day (celeb4aday.com) is a service that offers non-famous people a chance to experience life as a celebrity for a few hours. For a fee, the company arranges to have mock paparazzi follow you around snapping pictures and calling your name as you come out of a restaurant or store.
You probably don’t recognize the name Larry Dobrow and it is even less likely that you would recognize his face. He is a writer for American Way who decided to test this company and see if, in fact, having photographers follow him would fool anyone into thinking he is a celebrity. He describes himself as having, “ a face best suited for AM radio in rural areas, with skin tone that falls somewhere between pale and translucent…The notion that anyone would buy me as a celebrity seemed comically far-fetched.”
He arranged with the company his approximate schedule that morning, but to keep the element of surprise, didn’t know exactly where or when they would descend upon him. He was crossing 44th Street in Manhattan when it happened. “It came in the form of four photographers. They darted out from behind an illegally parked truck and, before my brain registered their presence, positioned their cameras inches from my face. As if this alone wouldn’t command my complete attention they affirmed it with a persistent chirp: ‘Larry! Hey, Larry” Here, Larry!’”
Larry goes on to describe that moments later, people started to ask him for a picture together. In total, he estimates more than 30 people approached him for autographs or pictures simply because they had seen the fake paparazzi snapping away. They had no idea who he was and frankly he wasn’t anyone they would likely care about and certainly would never take a picture with. But that didn’t matter.
Why are so many people infatuated with the lives of celebrities? Why is our first instinct when seeing someone famous to take a picture with him or her or to interact at all given that in reality we are complete strangers to one another? Larry Dobrow suggests, “Being in the presence of ‘Someone Who Matters’ is emotionally validating” and “a memento of that encounter posted on Facebook is the social currency of our time.”
Someone Who Matters. It all comes down to how we define that expression. Does appearing on TV or in movies automatically mean that you matter? Does having great athletic ability translate into being someone who matters? Does having lots of Facebook friends or millions of followers on Twitter mean that you matter? What does it mean to matter and doesn’t Judaism answer that question differently than pop culture?
The original location prescribed for the Chanukiah to be lit on Chanuka is outside of the home, al pesach beiso mi’bachutz. Halacha allows for it to be lit inside during what it calls sha’as sakanah, times of danger. The Chassam Sofer, Rav Moshe Sofer of Pressburg, who lived 200 years ago asks, why do we still light inside the home when it is often completely safe to light outside? What exemption are we relying on today?
He explains that the light of the Chanukiah, like that of the Menorah in the Temple, symbolizes Torah, and its values, lessons, and teachings. Torah dispels the darkness and illuminates the world with its timeless messages and enduring ideals. Says the Chassam Sofer, in the past, the Jewish home was a pure, pristine, insulated place whose identity and practices were informed by Torah alone. The Chanukiah was placed on the outside in order to illuminate the darkness out in the world and to dispel the unwelcomed foreign influences from penetrating into our houses.
Today, foreign influences, pop culture and alien values have made their way into our Jewish homes. We subscribe to magazines and newspapers, have smartphones and tablets, TVs, DVD players and DVRs, and web access everywhere. These bring with them powerful and destructive images, ideas and temptations. Now that the darkness has come into our homes, says the Chassam Sofer, it is a sha’as sakana, not of anti-Semitism, but of assimilation, and therefore, we light the candles inside.
Infatuation with pop culture, obsession with celebrities, and mistaking people who make headlines for people who matter are symptoms of darkness. Our celebrities who truly matter should be great Torah scholars and righteous men and women of impeccable character. We should be obsessed with real heroes like members of the IDF, coordinators of Chesed, and simple ehrlich (honest) people who work tirelessly for their families so their children can receive a Jewish education. They may not make headlines and aren’t followed around by the paparazzi, but they are leading lives that truly matter and being able to say we know them or having a picture with them should be the social currency of members of a Torah community.
Our children have all heard of Lebron James and they are likely familiar with Oprah, but have we made sure they know the name Rabbi Noah Muroff? A few weeks ago, Rabbi Muroff purchased a desk on Craigslist for $150. It wouldn’t fit in the spot he had designated for it so he took it apart in order to try to make it smaller. When he lifted off the top, he discovered $98,000 in cash. With his wife’s encouragement, it took less than 20 minutes to call the previous owner of the desk, a woman named Patty, to tell her they had found her money. She was speechless and later wrote in a thank you note, “I do not think there are too many people in this world that would have done what you did by calling me.” The Muroffs specifically brought their four children with them to return the money the next day, with the goal of teaching them in his words, “the message of honesty and integrity.”
Let’s teach our children to celebrate people like the Muroffs. Let’s inspire them to become tomorrow’s celebrities, not by hiring paparazzi or even by becoming famous, but by becoming people who truly matter.