Rabbi Raffi Bilek
Are you famous?
Updated: Mar 5
Are you famous?
I am not.
Sometimes I wish I was, because being famous means people like you and you’re great, right? Although when I think about it further, being famous is probably pretty lame. Every time you sneeze you might end up in a tabloid photo with a funny-looking expression. And if you should ever say or do something less-than-praiseworthy the entire world will know about it. Could be it’s not so great.
Actor Jim Carrey has said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer.” I think that’s pretty powerful coming from someone who is indeed both rich and famous.
Judaism, unlike Western society, does not hold rich and famous to be particularly desirable achievements. Wealth we are pretty neutral on – could be good, could be bad, depending how you use it. But fame is definitely generally frowned upon. Gedolei Yisrael generally become gedolim unwittingly, sometimes even unwillingly. You never see a true gadol campaigning for office or recognition. They usually make public statements under duress, due to the needs of the time.
Image is Everything
There is no question that we are affected by the perceptions of others. Many of us (myself included) would like to think that we do what we believe is right, regardless of what others think. The degree to which this is actually true probably depends on how much we’ve worked on ourselves. Both Torah and secular wisdom bear this out.
When witnesses come before the Sanhedrin to testify to a capital crime, beis din warns them in all kinds of scary ways that they better not be lying. But the last thing they say to them is that “if you were hired by someone to give false testimony, don’t think you’re going to be esteemed by them; they too are going to spit on you for what you’ve done.” The final, and ostensibly strongest, argument made by the court is that they’re going to be despised in the eyes of others. (Check out Sanhedrin 29a. I heard this idea from Rav Lopiansky.)
Modern science speaks to the same point. An experiment was done in which a bunch of participants were called into a room, except that all of them were confederates except one. And the researchers began asking simple questions along the lines of “which of these straight lines is longer?” And the answer would be obvious and they’d all choose the right one.
But then they put up a chart with a bunch of lines, and the answer was still obvious, but all the confederates would choose a line which was clearly not the longest. The actual research subject, who was not in the know, was now left to decide whether he would go with the group or his own eyes. This process was repeated over several questions. 3 out of 4 participants went along with the crowd and chose the clearly incorrect answer at least once. It is a fascinating statement on our sensitivity to peer influence. (This is known as the Asch conformity experiment for those who want to look it up.)
The Jewish Take
Whereas in American society, to be famous is to be successful, the Torah preaches a different path. What are the greatest moments in Jewish history?
The greatest test was Akeidas Yitzchak. Avraham Avinu proved himself before G-d and G-d alone. When the moment came he told his associates, “stay here with the donkey.” This was not a public event.
The moment of highest spiritual achievement was arguably when Moshe Rabbeinu met G-d face to face at the giving of the Torah. At that moment he too stood alone, on a mountaintop shrouded by thick cloud. Nobody was witness to this capital spiritual accomplishment.
The holiest moment of the Jewish year took place on Yom Kippur, when the Kohen Gadol entered the Holy of Holies. Nobody was in there with him. Nobody saw him perform the incense service. It was just him and the Holy One Blessed Be He.
I can’t help but shake my head and sigh when non-observant Jews accuse Torah Judaism of being sexist because it bars women from the supposedly critical roles of being called up to the Torah or leading davening. This is, of course, a misunderstanding of where value lies, borne of our immersion in exile. So many of us have come to believe that that which happens in public is important and that which happens in the solitude of our relationship with G-d is simply not worthy of note – which, of course, is exactly backwards.
(It is on those days when I head out to shacharis in the pitch black before sunrise and it’s cold and rainy, while my wife sips a warm tea at home in her bathrobe, that I most wonder how anyone got the idea that Judaism treats women poorly by not counting them in a minyan.)
You may have heard the story of the students of Rabbi Rosenberg who needed to say kiddush levana on the last possible day one month, but it was cloudy, so they rented a helicopter, went above the clouds, and did the deed. They came to their rav in their excitement and told him of their accomplishment and their mesiras nefesh for the mitzvah. His response was reportedly, "Yes. It's too bad you ruined it by telling everyone about it."
What about you?
What are your greatest moments? Do you consider it to be the successful speech that garnered a standing ovation? The medal won for achievement in your field? Your ascension to a position of power or prestige?
The frank truth is that these cannot rival the greatness you can achieve in utter solitude, the greatness no one will ever know about apart from you and G-d. In that moment when you were about to speak a nasty word to your spouse and held back; when you were about to click to that website and turned away; when you could have kept that money but didn’t – those are the moments that will laud you when your time on this Earth is up.
Don’t tell me what they are. Don’t tell anyone. G-d already knows, and He treasures those private moments more than anything.
Your greatest moments are between you and Him. Your relationship with Him is built on those moments, just as the most intimate moments between a husband and wife are those words spoken to each other that nobody else hears. Cherish them, seek out those opportunities, and hope for a life in which your deeds will not be exposed to the public eyes where they cannot but be affected and diluted by the scrutiny.
What a blessing that the greatest triumphs you can achieve don’t depend on electoral success or public opinion! All you need for ultimate success is your singular, holy soul. Being rich and famous isn’t the answer; the answer is inside of you.
Postscript: although I am not trying to become rich and famous, I did just put out this book, which I am pretty excited about. Hope you will be too!