Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Ed McMahon, Billy Mays: Counting the Stars and Numbering the Days

Last week’s news was dominated by the deaths of three celebrities: Ed McMahon, who entered our homes as Johnny Carson’s sidekick, and later – we wished – as the man bearing the big check from Publisher’s Clearinghouse. Farrah Fawcett, whose pin-up poster sold 12 million copies and appeared in the dorm rooms of a generation, and whose hairstyle literally sent millions of American women to stylists asking to “look like Farrah.” And Michael Jackson, who was performing as a gifted song-and-dance talent from as early as age five. By the time he would emerge from among his family as the preeminent Jackson entertainer, his albums would sell 750 million copies. Days later, we learned that 50-year-old Billy Mays had just died of a heart attack. Billy was the “As Seen on TV” pitch man who sold us products while operators were standing by: OxiClean, Orange Glo, Mighty Putty, a health insurance plan, ESPN 360.

Michael Jackson’s death set off a veritable panic. It took one of my family members, who works near UCLA, three extra hours to get home because the crowds outside UCLA Medical Center, where Jackson died, were so massive. On the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame, throngs placed wreaths and wept at Michael Jackson’s star on the cement – not realizing that they were mourning at the star of the wrong Michael Jackson, a radio talk show host.

The death of Michael Jackson the Moonwalker eclipsed Ms. Fawcett’s death earlier that morning. When she had died, the TV networks began preparing to preempt their regular programming for the night, for their respective documentaries remembering her life: the hairdo, the poster, the marriage to the Six Million Dollar Man, the divorce, the surprising reminder that she had acted only one year on “Charlie’s Angel’s” before moving to made-for-TV films. Ryan O’Neal, her long-time companion, told an interviewer that, while there are many “celebrities,” Ms. Fawcett genuinely was a “star.” And yet her star was eclipsed the day of her death; media focus of remembrance rapidly shifted mid-day to Jackson

And so, as each element of our media-driven society – the cable news and celebrity-gossip programs in particular – endeavor to keep the stories running, it is worthwhile pausing to ask whether there is anything for us to learn from it all.

There is.

Life is short. So terribly short. “The days of our lives are seventy years and, [if blessed with extra] strength, eighty years . . . so much of it hard work and emptiness cut off suddenly and we fly away. . . . So teach us [O G-d] to count our days.” (Tehillim 90:10,12 ) We know we will not live forever, but how we do let the days go by! And why not? For “tomorrow is another day.” And then, suddenly, the little boy for whom we bought his first ice cream cone at his first state fair, and the little girl we pushed on a swing, each has a packed suitcase at the front door, bidding us good-bye as each leaves the nest, closing a chapter in our biographies. And soon our parents’ friends – people with whom we grew up – are dying. And then parents.

Tomorrow is not another day. Tomorrow is a noun that means that today is lost forever. Yesterday, too. There is no tomorrow for even the greatest of celebrities whose time comes. Nor is there a today for those of us who would consume it watching and reading all about them. Our moments to realize our own dreams and hopes are today.

Synagogues are filled with congregants who congregate to reach the spiritual, the Divine. The rabbi or shul president announces after services that Torah classes will be meeting during the week. A chesed committee will be doing acts of kindness on Tuesday. A scholar is visiting and will speak next week. Do we take advantage of every moment, every opportunity that comes our way to grow Jewishly? Do we passionately seize the day’s opportunity to grow closer to G-d, acting as if there is no tomorrow and as if today is too precious to waste?

The real stars are not on the screen but in the firmaments, and they are counted only by G-d. “He counts the number of the stars, and He calls each one by its name.” (Tehillim 147:4) But we do have the chance – at least a bit – to number our days. We need only contemplate how quickly our heroes and our legends pass. How quickly their laughter fades, their smiles fade, their hair, their booming voices, their dancing. There is so little time. And every precious moment is witnessed by the stars above and G-d above them.