Important and Famous People

As is usually the case when we gather outside in our Gan Shalom to celebrate Shabbat together as a community, our gathering this past Friday was a mixture of adults, a few JELLI (Religious School) kids and young children from our Early Childhood Center. So, Rebecca Itow and I facilitated a Shabbat with elements that would speak to everyone. When we arrived at the end of our time together and it was time for me to introduce the Kaddish, I tried to do so with the kids in mind, giving them just enough to fill them in on what was about to happen. After I read all the Yahrtzeit names and we recited the Kaddish, I was preparing to lead Oseh Shalom. At that moment, one of our JELLI kids, Asher Zaczepinski, who has some of the best (and perhaps the most frequent) questions on the planet, asked me, “Rabbi, was that a list of famous or important people? Is that why you read their names?” I was stumped for a minute. Finally, I said to Asher, “Well, the people we named were famous to their family and friends. To them, they were very important.”

So much of our focus these days is on people we consider to somehow be nationally or internationally famous and/or important – politicians, musicians, chefs, sports figures and those filled with self-importance who too often end up on “reality” TV. Perhaps we should take our energy away from such folks (they’ll have plenty of admirers left anyway) and look right in front of our noses to the people around us, family, friends, people at work or school, the people who serve our food, clean up after us and many others who are “famous” and/or “important” in our lives.

You may know the urban tale of the professor who, the way I heard it, put a question on a final exam that said something like, “Who is Tony Esposito (In the story I heard, another name was used, but I can’t remember it)?” The students began to go over their notes in their heads – was Mr. Esposito a noteworthy spokesperson on that course’s field of study, one of their professor’s teachers or colleagues? Who could Tony Esposito be? How was he mentioned? Was it a footnote or something more major? When the students received their graded tests and gathered for the last time with the professor, they realized that not one of them knew who Tony Esposito was. They asked the professor and he told them that Mr. Esposito was the custodian for the building in which their class was held.

They started to giggle in surprise and with some resentment that their professor would have the audacity to put such a frivolous question on their final exam and thus reduce all their scores and final grades. The professor told them, “Whatever you end up doing in your professional life or whatever the personality and context of your personal life, it will never be complete unless you do not merely notice but care about those around you whom many others consider expendable and invisible.”

Perhaps we all need to ask ourselves a version of Asher’s question: “Who are the people who are famous and important in my life?”