I recently watched a movie made in 2004 called “Troy”. It stars Brad Pitt in the role of Achilles. It tells the story of Achilles, the greatest warrior of all Greek heroes. The Greeks are about to go to war against Troy but Achilles is reluctant and to fight. Achilles senses that he is not only being used but also exploited by his king, Agamemnon, who he doesn’t like very much at all. The movie portrays Achilles as someone who would rather stay home, tend his sheep, settle down and have a family. The problem for everyone else is — how can we get Achilles — this legendary warrior and hero — to join us in battle?
The answer lies in appealing to Achilles’ vanity, specifically his desire for fame. In one scene, Achilles receives a messenger from the King asking him to sail with them to Troy. Achilles wavers. He doesn’t want to fight any more. Then Achilles’ mother lays it our for him. She reminds him that he can remain home and be a shepherd or, he can go to Troy and become famous! She tells him: If you stay here, you may live a long and quiet life, but if you go with the King to Troy, EVEN IF YOU DIE, your fame will last for a thousand years! (I can’t imagine a Jewish mother saying that to her son!) And so on and so forth, throughout the movie. Each time Achilles is reluctant to join the battle, someone appeals to the opportunity for fame, for the chance to be remembered forever. Achilles own desire for fame overcomes his nagging doubts that he is fighting on the wrong side of this battle.
The story of Achilles reflects the value the ancient Greeks put on the heroic quest for fame and glory. According to the myth, Achilles’ pursuit of fame did not end with his death on the battlefield. It continued beyond his mortal life to his eternal afterlife! In our culture as well, people are often obsessed with celebrity and fame. We are bombarded with the comings and goings on of the rich and famous on social media, television, magazines and newspapers. Scientific American magazine reported a study that a desire for fame solely for the sake of being famous was the most popular future goal among a group of 10-12 year olds. That is, when 10-12 years old were asked about their future goals, most said that they “just wanted to be famous”. Their goal was not financial success, not professional success, not getting married or having a family – their goal was to be famous!
Social scientists believe there are three main reasons that pre-adolescents want to be famous. First, they equate “fame” with being valued and recognized by the larger public. Remember how a few weeks ago Twitter exploded after Brad Pitt was photographed wearing a name tag at an Oscar’s luncheon? Brad Pitt is famous – why would he need a nametag! Second, fame is associated with wealth, power and a lavish lifestyle. Third, pre-teens believe that the riches and high profile associated with fame would make family and friends proud of them.
Fame and power are also alluded to in the Torah. The Torah tells us that “Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people of Egypt.” His reputation even spread outside of Egypt. Yitro, Moses’ father in law, heard of Moses’ fame and accomplishments in the Land of Midian. Indeed, the word spread far and wide. We read in the Song of the Sea, “The nations heard and trembled”. The name of Moses, it appears, is known throughout the ancient world.
Yet we know that fame and celebrity meant nothing to Moses. He didn’t care whether he was famous or not. When G-d becomes angry with the Israelites, he threatens to wipe them out, and begin the People of Israel over with Moses and his descendants. “I will destroy them, and make YOU a great nation,” says G-d to Moses. Moses, however, is worried more about G-d’s reputation than his own. “People will say, “You took them out of Egypt only to kill them in the desert!” Furthermore, Moses says, if you don’t forgive the Israelites, then you might as well erase my name from the Torah. Moses doesn’t care about fame, Moses doesn’t care about his personal legacy, Moses doesn’t care about being remembered in the Torah — all he cares about is the cause that he is serving. All he cares about is G-d and the Jewish people.
Author Leil Lowndes writes: “There are two kinds of people in this life. Those who walk into a room and say, ‘Well, here I am.’ And those who walk in and say, ‘Ah, there you are.'” Moses is the second type – he puts his ego aside and cares about others. Therefore this great man is remembered as the humblest human being who ever lived.
Greek heroes sought fame, honor and glory for themselves. Jewish tradition emphasizes the heroic nature of selflessness, compassion, and service to others. Which set of values do you choose to live by?