Real greatness doesn't have anything to do with someone's fame or talents, but rather is all about his values and decency. In this week's portion, we encounter Bilaam. He was world-famous in his time, with great power and abilities. He could even communicate directly with God! But Bilaam was far from great, because he misused his talents to boost his own ego, and harm others. Once we realize what greatness is, we might be surprised to discover who is and isn't truly great, and can work on bringing out the greatness in ourselves.
In our story, a kid gets a surprising lesson in greatness.
"Barry, could you please bring out another tray of desserts?" asked Wally, the headwaiter, in his typical patient way. But Barry Solomon didn't hear a thing. His mind was still spinning from the poster he had just seen in the dining room. 'The Great One', Jay-Jay Stone, his hero and favorite singer in the whole world, was not only going to be performing at the hotel where Barry was working as a waiter for the summer, but was going to be staying there for two whole weeks as guest entertainer!
"Barry, the ice-cream parfaits are going to melt," pleaded Wally.
The boy finally woke up from his fog. "Sorry, boss," he said, grabbing the dessert tray and speeding them out to the waiting guests.
When he got back to the kitchen, Barry had only one thing on his mind. "Please, Wally. I'll do whatever you want - work double time, triple time. Just let me be 'The Great One's' private waiter!"
At first his boss tried to put him off, explaining how it might be a lot of extra work etc. But Barry didn't care. Anything was worth being able to spend two weeks so close to someone so great, and seeing his famous billion-dollar smile up-close every day. Finally, after much begging, cajoling and just plain nudging, Barry succeeded and it looked like his dream was coming true.
That evening, Barry made sure to put on his cleanest and shiniest waiter's uniform. He had even ironed it himself (boy, would his mom ever faint if she knew he had done that!). He grabbed three menus for Jay-Jay and his two guests sitting in the dining area of the V.I.P. suite, and with his brightest smile - not as bright as Jay-Jay's world-famous one, but pretty bright nonetheless - he excitedly entered the luxurious room, certain he was about to begin what would be the greatest summer of his life.
It ended up being one of the worst. Not only didn't Jay-Jay bother looking up at him even once that evening, but he seemed to be doing whatever he could to make Barry's life miserable. He kept snapping his fingers at him, and had him running back and forth to the kitchen so many times to fulfill his special requests that the boy thought he was going to collapse from exhaustion. One time he even angrily made Barry run all the way back with his fruit cup because it had seven cherries and not the eight he had demanded.
Barry just didn't get it. Jay-Jay was always smiling on the covers of his disks and acted so sweet during his performances, but in private, he just acted like a big, spoiled grouch, without a smile in sight. In the main hotel dining room, the guests were usually very nice to Barry and thanked him for his work, but Jay-Jay never said a single word of thanks to him, but boy did he explode if he didn't get it exactly right.
He figured maybe things would get better over time, but they only got worse, and before long, Barry was dreading every meal. Wally felt sorry for Barry, and tried his best to help him out, even taking time out from his own busy schedule to help him bring things up to Jay-Jay. But the singer just never seemed to be satisfied, and whatever they did was never good enough for him.
One evening Wally greeted Barry with a big smile. "Well, I guess you'll be wanting the night off, tonight," he said.
Barry, looked up at him from the salad bar he was arranging. "Why?" he asked.
"Come on, you mean you forgot what night it is? It's Jay-Jay's big grand-finale concert in the main ballroom. I'll take over your extra work tonight. Take this and go have a good time." Wally smiled and handed Barry a special free concert pass. "I got this for you, in appreciation for all your hard work this summer."
Barry looked at the ticket, but instead of taking it and running off, he put it down and strapped on his waiter's apron. "Hey, what're you doing?" asked Wally. "Don't you want to see 'The Great One' tonight?"
The boy smiled and said. "Yes, that's why I'm staying here, to be with someone great - you."
Wally laughed. "Me, great? I'm not famous like Jay-Jay, I'm a nobody."
"No way," said Barry. "Jay-Jay may be famous and sing great, but he's not truly great. One big lesson I learned this summer, is that if a person cares about others and treats them right - like you do, Wally - then he's really great, whether he's famous or not. From now on, I'm sticking with you."
Q. How did Barry feel about Jay-Jay at first?
A. That since he was a famous singer, he was a great person.
Q. How did he feel in the end?
A. When Jay-Jay acted so nastily to him, Barry saw that being famous and talented doesn't make someone great - rather, greatness depends on how good and kind someone is.
Q. What is the lesson we learn from what happened to Barry?
A. Barry learned the hard way, what makes someone great - and what does not. In the beginning of the summer, he thought if someone was famous or super-talented, like Jay-Jay, then they were great. But he discovered that these things are only superficial, and someone like his boss, who was a good and caring person, was far greater than the coldhearted singer.
Q. Do you think it is healthy the way people make a big deal over famous entertainers, athletes and other celebrities?
A. There is nothing wrong with appreciating someone's talents, as long as we keep it in perspective. We should remember that their looks, wealth, or talents are only gifts that God has given to them. We should also keep in mind that celebrities are only people just like we are, and they are not even necessarily great or even good people, unless their inner values and character traits are as good as their glittering outer image.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Our sages teach that everything about a person is 'heaven sent' except for his values and the goodness of his character. How do you understand this, and how does it relate to the idea of greatness?
A. Most things about us - our looks, our intelligence and talents, and even whether we will be rich or poor, are given to us by God as the 'backdrop' to our lives. They are not something we earn and they are not something we choose. Our only real choice, and therefore our only real accomplishment, is how we relate to our life's circumstances, and whether we use them to build ourselves into good, caring people with healthy values - or the opposite. This is the only genuine measure of greatness.
Q. When considering a person's greatness, is it possible to separate his public behavior and accomplishments from his private life?
A. The Torah teaches us to look at a person as a whole and not to compartmentalize. A person's private life is just as much a measure of who he is, and actually more so, than his public persona. Someone who acts destructively towards himself or others cannot be considered great, no matter what he accomplishes in public.