By Yonatan Gordon
What is fame and why do so many fail at it? Whether you have read the stories or not, the conclusion that most of us have reached long ago is that fame is a test; and if you want to lead a “straight” (yashar) life, stay away from the spotlight. Sustain the world with your learning, do good deeds, but don’t attempt fame.
While this answer works for some, there are good results that come about from the famous. For instance, if you want to start a revolution, a good revolution, it is helpful to have public endorsements from those names that the public is familiar with.
Now revolutions can happen small, even with ten people, but they also occur through amassing numbers. Therefore in addition to receiving endorsements from the famous, to make sweeping change it may be necessary to become known oneself as endorsements will only take you so far.
We need to think some more into this. First regarding why so many famous people go down the wrong path, and secondly, on how we can inspire the masses to rally around our good and holy causes.
I thought to begin by explaining the subject according to the approach taken by the Chassidic movement.
The first qualification is that for a chassid, the revolution that we speak of is the vision to print Moshiach. This is the central motivation for every chassid, to further the revolution to bring Moshiach, as depicted in this account:
In a letter to his brother-in-law, Rabbi Gershon Mikitov, the Ba’al Shem Tov wrote about a wondrous vision he experienced, in which he saw himself wandering through the upper realms (in a “soul elevation”) until he reached the Hall of Moshiach. The Ba’al Shem Tov asked the Moshiach, “When will my master come?” and Moshiach answered, “When your wellsprings will disseminate outwards.”
Thus the reason for a chassid to become famous is to further the revolution to bring Moshiach. This is a good motivation that when expressed properly can do an immense amount of good. But as I will now explain, this motivation needs to be carried out correctly.
Changing the Tide
It took me over a decade of being active in “spreading the wellsprings” to realize that my focus was the opposite of where it should have been. Instead to working to spread Chassidut “out there” in the world, I should have reversed the tide.
Normally when we think of “spreading outwards” we see some Chassidic teaching or melody and we start to think about where to promote it. This is good if the public would be receptive of the material in its undiluted pure form. But we are in a low spiritual generation, and people expect that teachings or melodies be packaged in easily digestible portion.
When I began this “spreading outwards” journey, I thought that stocking the shelves of Barnes & Noble stores with Chassidic books meant “spreading the wellsprings outward.” That now, as a result of successfully convincing their religion book buyer to give it a try, hundreds of books were successfully “flooding” their shelves with the wellsprings of Chassidut.
The learning lesson came when most of those books starting “flowing back” to my warehouse some months later. It was a nice effort, and I’m sure some people benefited in some way from seeing those books there, but it became apparent that the approach needed some tweaking.
What I began to realize is that most of us are not travelling books of Chassidut, and that’s okay because not everyone is ready for the undiluted version. Most creative-minded individuals working to promote Judaism are inspired by some Torah teaching and work to express these inspirations into our writing, music, art, or other forms of creative expression. While I am inspired by some Torah teaching, and stand to inspire others, this does not mean that the Torah in general, or wellsprings of Chassidus in particular, are travelling along with me.
These are personal expressions of creativity but do not represent the corpus of the source material.
Why is this an important distinction?
This is important for two reasons:
The first is to realize that while a book of Chassidut may be too heavy for most people to initially digest, you can easily pack a bar with fellow creative-minded souls to hear your personal inspirations which may eventually bring them to the source of these inspirations.
The second is to realize that your creative renderings are not breaking new boundaries for spreading the wellsprings of Chassidut. At least not yet.
The classic approach is that someone who is interested in Chabad should delve directly into Tanya or Likkutei Moharan for Breslov. But if you are creatively inspired, and are concerned whether people know about and know how to relate to these and other source books, then adaptations can be made (in the form of art, music, poetry, etc…) to inspire and encourage people to learn more.
Now that we have these two distinctions in mind, we can began to explain how to the subject at hand, which is to embark on a life of fame without the fall.
At first the treatment of this subjects seems insular. After all we all talking about this very broad concept called “fame” and attempting to explain it within the Chassidic context. There are two answers to this.
The first is that all Jews are “believers, sons of believers.” All Jews believe in and want Moshiach to come. Thus whether you are knowingly “spreading the wellsprings of Chassidut” or not, subconsciously thus the awareness is there. (For instance, many of my essays over the past few years were written to explain the hidden “Messianic vision” behind the thoughts and actions of famous Jewish personalities.)
The second is that the Torah also speaks about non-Jews, so we have something to add about non-Jewish personalities who seek fame as well.
Quizzically there is a fallacy that comes from those consciously working to “spread the wellsprings” of Chassidut. The fallacy derives from the thought that they are doing more to “spread the wellsprings” of Chassidut than ever before. That by performing in this bar, starring in this movie, and so forth, they are breaking through and flooding more areas with these wellsprings. But as mentioned, while creative individuals are encouraged to express themselves, a song inspired by Tanya is not Tanya; and while it may be introducing more people to this holy book, in this case, the true “spreading the wellsprings” occurs when people begin learning from the book behind the inspiration.
The problem is not with creatively adapting Chassidic teachings, and not with fame itself. We know this because Abraham was promised fame, “I will bless you and make your name great” (Genesis 12:2). In the case of a chassid who wants to be active in bringing Moshiach, there is a mistaken belief that we can call the “fallacy of breakthroughs.” As explained above, to think that new boundaries are being broken, new extremes reached, more “sparks” elevated, in order to bring Moshiach.
Now when an undiluted Chassidic book reaches the shelves of Barnes & Noble stories, or a Chassidic mashpiah (respected spiritual mentor) travels around from city to city, we can say that Chassidut is spreading outward to these store shelves or cities. But while these may be undiluted revelations, there is also the risk of the books coming back or few people attending the Chassidic event. Thus if you want to spread the wellsprings, you may need to start by sharing your personal expressions. And once tens, hundreds, or thousands are inspired, the hope is that they will begin trickling to the source of these inspirations by visiting their local Chabad House, yeshiva, etc…
It’s Not Going to Be That Easy…
Recently I came upon a very good example of this approach. It is from a Chassidic singer named Moshe Hendel, and the song is called “Come with Me.”
The song is abstract and artistic, but as explained above, this is okay as long as the song (or other forms of creative expression) serve as an introduction. To inspired and encourage the listener to teshuvah, returning to God and His Torah.
Additionally, since every Jew believes in the coming of Moshiach, when relating to a Messianic vision, it is good to phrase the vision in such a way that any Jew can relate. Thus the verses speak about going to a “place beyond our dreams,” and singing a “song we’ve never sung;” general thoughts that encourage the listener to begin thinking consciously along these lines.
With regard to the end of Moshe Hendel’s song it is exactly according to the approach this article has been working to explain. To quote: “If you decide to I’ve got to warn you… If you decide to come it’s not going to be that easy…” Meaning that if you want to go to a place beyond your dreams, and sing a song you’ve never sung, if you want to do your part to bring Moshiach, there are no short-cuts. Go to a Chabad House or yeshiva and sit and learn. I don’t know if this is what Moshe Hendel had in mind, but I thought it fit quite well.
From the fallacy of seeing oneself as breaking boundaries to bring Moshiach, there is a real concern that this person will be led to more break more boundaries, ultimately leading to inappropriate conduct.
After reading this some may think that Chassidut is the problem. That the fervor and messianism is too strong. But as stated, the fervor is always there within every Jew. Instead of creating the fervor, Chassidut works to direct it in the proper way.
Encouraging creative expression also doesn’t mean that the particulars of Jewish law are less important. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman—founder of Chabad and author of a Code of Jewish Law—writes in the Kuntres Acharon section on Tanya, Essay 6:
“As is known, all the worlds, the exalted and the lowly, are dependent on the meticulous performance of a single mitzvah…Let one therefore ponder how great are the works of God in the multiplicity of worlds and all their hosts, and how all of these are literally null, relative to any one of the specific requirements of the Torah…”
There needs to be a balance, one that doesn’t shut down people’s creative ambitions, but also cautions these very same souls off the wrong path.
Sourcing Creative Expression
Now since I’ve explained about fame and creative expression, since a source in the Torah for fame was cited, I thought it appropriate to also mention a possible source for creative expression. Where does this fallacy come from? To view the Torah as travelling together with our personally inspired songs and other creative expressions?
Interestingly, the source that came to mind actually begins the selfsame essay in Kuntres Acharon of Tanya quoted above. The same essay that emphasizes the importance of being meticulous in mitzvah observance, also mentions perhaps the most fitting example of creative expression in Jewish thought.
When David triumphantly brought back the Ark from its captivity in the hands of the Philistines, it was placed on a wagon. David had momentarily forgotten the stipulation of the Torah, “On the shoulder shall they carry it.” Commenting on this episode, our Sages teach that David’s forgetfulness came as a punishment for his having referred to the laws of the Torah as “songs”: “Your statutes were songs for me in my place of sojournings.” (Psalms 119:54).
While the essay in Kuntres Acharon concludes to David’s merit, that we was overjoyed when he contemplated how the entire world is of no account, relative to one minor specific detail of the Torah, there is still room for explanation. For one, because King David was punished for referring to the Torah as “songs,” and secondly, because the punishment that was meted out specifically dealt with carrying the Ark, which contained the tablets, and perhaps the Torah that Moses wrote as well.
This is my own creative idea, but the thought that came to mind was that this progression of King David first referring to the Torah as “songs,” and then forgetting how to carry the Ark, fit our discussion about creative expression and the “fallacy of fame.”
This episode reminds us that clear distinctions need to be maintained to keep our distinction between Torah and creative expressions (in poetry, song, art, etc…) clear. While creative expression is healthy, we should know that we are not traveling with the “Ark,” and our creative songs sung in bars or starring roles in movies, etc.., does not usher the Torah or the wellsprings of Chassidut out to these places.
Jacob and Esau
The Jewish people are compared to stars, “That I will surely bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens…” (Genesis 22:17), “And I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens…” (Genesis 26: 4). Couple this with the promise of fame, name aggrandizement, given to Abraham, and we can begin to appreciate that the natural place for a Jew to be is to be in the spotlight.
That said, what was explained until now was to introduce a tikkun, rectified approach to fame. That with all the proper motivations and intentions in place, there is no reason to steer down the wrong path.
Are there risks involved? Yes. But when a person is trapped inside a burning building, and we see clearly the way to rush in and rush out with them in our hands, which one of us would hesitate to do so? Thus what I attempted to explain in brief was the way to rush in and out safely.
At the end of the epic encounter between Jacob and Esau, prior to Jacob returning to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan, each made statements regarding their possessions. As Rashi comments to Genesis 33:11, whereas Esau expressed himself haughtily by stating “I have plenty,” Jacob stated “I have all,” meaning that I have all that I need.
Thus, pertaining to our present discussion, the Jewish mindset is one that is hardwired to both fame and stardom, but is also content. Thus if you see a famous Jew doing all sort of illicit things, we should teach them to redirect their passion and drive to bring Moshiach. To redirect their desire to “break boundaries” from illicit to holy.
For a non-Jew that is into all sort of illicit things, even if for years they seemed well-mannered and moral, this comes from Esau’s “I have plenty” approach which constantly seeks to acquire more. The illicit actions are for self-aggrandizement instead of aggrandizing the name of God as it is with the descendants of Jacob.
Thus if a non-Jewish actor outwardly appeared to be moral, as this morality was not grounded and anchored in the eternal truth of the Torah, the ground upon which they were standing was not stable. Even a non-Jew that keeps all the Noahide Laws in all their details still needs to acknowledge that they were given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
In summary, Jew and non-Jews need to be safeguarded from the pitfalls of fame for different reasons. But with the proper education and training, both Jews and non-Jews can overcome the pitfalls to fame and bring Moshiach today.
Originally published on CommunityofReaders.org. Republished with permission.