Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Crypto, right? It’s the hottest thing right now. If only you had been smart enough to realize its potential way back when. Maybe it’d be you in that mansion, driving that car, or on that vacation.

On a recent episode of the “Kosher Money” podcast, guest Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin decries what he labels “Gvir Culture,” where communities valorize material success. He identifies two major issues that Gvir Culture can engender: An unhealthy, “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses’” mentality, and the putting of Gvirim on a pedestal as some of the only valuable members of our communities.

One of Rabbi Bashevkin’s suggestions for combating these behaviors is to “Celebrate the Middle.” We shouldn’t only focus on the extremes of a community (either the wealthiest donors or those sacrificing in poverty), but to appreciate and celebrate those in the middle. As he writes, “A strong community celebrates a strong middle.”

While hopefully a viable part of the solution to Gvir Culture, this speaks to something much larger. I think Gvir Culture is a subset of the larger “Superstar Culture” that exists within our communities.

As Rabbi Bashevkin succinctly points out, the elevation of Gvirim to elite status creates an environment where all people are measured against them, and financial success is relative to their wealth. Gvirim become rock stars. Imitated, but unreachable.

I think that’s indicative of something greater, the aforementioned Superstar Culture. There are a lot of superstars in the Orthodox world. Take a look at any frum podcast, shul dinner, or Pesach program. Whether it’s the guest, award recipients or featured speakers, there are bound to be superstars in any Orthodox function. Often the same rabbis, singers, influencers, etc. are the big names headlining event after event.

Don’t get me wrong. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the many superstars of our community. Chas v’shalom am I trying to disparage them in any way at all. There isn’t even anything wrong with looking to these superstars as a source of inspiration for what’s possible.

Problems arise when the entire barometer of success is defined by how well a person sizes up to these superstars. That if I’m not producing a podcast, running my own business, and giving a Daf shiur all while raising five children I’m somehow not successful. As Rabbi Bashevkin writes, we need to get ourselves to look to the middle of the road, not just the superstars, when determining what defines successful and fulfilling ways to live.

In Parshas Va’eira, just before the advent of the Makkos, the Torah tells us a little more about Moshe and Aharon. In one pasuk the Torah discusses them as “Aharon and Moshe,” and in the next pasuk they’re described as “Moshe and Aharon.” Rashi explains that by mixing up which of the two is listed first, the pesukim are indicating to us that Moshe and Aharon were of equal greatness. At first glance this doesn’t appear to be true. The Torah itself eventually tells us that no one ever arose quite like Moshe, so how could it be that Aharon was of equal greatness?

Many explain Rashi not as saying that Aharon and Moshe were exactly equal in greatness, but that they were equal in relative greatness. Moshe maximized his potential as Moshe, and Aharon maximized his potential as Aharon. True, Moshe may have objectively been greater, but both reached the limits of who they could be. Like the story told of Reb Zusha when his students asked why he, a great tzadik, was crying on his deathbed. “Because when I get to Heaven, God won’t ask me why I wasn’t like Moshe Rabeinu. He will ask me why I wasn’t like Zusha.”

Now I can hear some counter remarks. “If we scale down what it means to be successful, won’t that just incentivize people to become less great?” “Maybe this whole thing is just thinly veiled jealousy of superstars and a reaction to my own lack of stardom.”

I’ll admit, that’s certainly possible. But I believe it is more than that. Getting people to pare down the measure of personal success isn’t just about making them feel better when confronted with feelings of inadequacy. Rather, it’s about reorienting what it means to be successful. Success is about making sure you are the absolute best version of yourself. The best child, spouse, parent, teacher, rabbi, friend, or whatever else, that you can possibly be. Superstar Culture can lead people to focus on developing externals while forgoing the more critical internal development.

Attributed to many, including R’ Yisroel Salanter and the Chofetz Chaim, is the following saying:

“When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.”

Often the best way to have an impact, make change, and ultimately “be successful” is by making sure we do our best to allow ourselves—and encourage others—to reach our personal maximum potential. There is nothing wrong with being a superstar, but we can’t lose sight of shining like a star as we try to be super.

Barak Hagler is a young Jewish professional living in Hillside. He cares deeply about the general Orthodox community that he is a part of, and enjoys discussing the various facets that it comprises. He can be reached at [email protected] for any thoughts or comments. 

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