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Should We Honor Whitney Houston?

on Friday, February 17 2012. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
Whitney Houston was discovered dead last Saturday in her hotel room on the eve of the Grammy awards.  In her short 48 years in this world, she accomplished a great deal including having earned 415 career awards, the greatest number of all time.  She sold over 170 million albums worldwide and was considered by many to have the greatest voice of her generation.

There is no question that her passing is sad, and indeed, tragic.   Despite her fame, fortune and celebrity status, Whitney Houston struggled with drug use and addiction.  Ultimately, her career and her life came to abrupt ends because she could not conquer the addictions that plagued her.

Literature defines a tragic figure as someone who has tremendous potential, but faces great struggles and suffering and ultimately fails to realize that potential.  It seems to me that Whitney Houston fits that definition as undoubtedly she had much more to offer the world.

I mention Whitney Houston not to mourn the death of a pop icon, but to share an observation about the disturbing reaction our society has had to her death.  Governor Chris Christie, a bold and courageous man in many ways, an outspoken advocate for strong moral values, announced a decision to fly Government flags in New Jersey at half staff on Saturday, to honor the late Whitney Houston.  Traditionally, lowering the flags is reserved for fallen soldiers and others who spent their lives in patriotic service.  Yet, Gov. Christie has defended his decision stating that Houston deserves to be honored in this manner.

I received an email this week from an Orthodox Synagogue right here in South Florida that will be dedicating the weekend to Whitney Houston’s memory and will be hosting the Ambassador of African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem who will discuss his interaction with Ms. Houston.  

The decisions of both Governor Christie and this Synagogue are not only bizarre, they are deeply disturbing and I believe send horrible and damaging messages to our children.  To acknowledge Whitney Houston’s death as tragic, is legitimate.  To present her as a hero worthy of our esteem, emulation, respect and honor is to distort the very definition of a hero.  

After all, this is a woman who had the greatest potential to contribute to the world through her magnificent voice, her fame, her fortune and her very public stage.  Her inability to conquer her addictions not only caused her to self destruct, but likely took her life before her 50th birthday.  Such a life is worth mourning and holding up as a lesson and model of life’s challenges, perils and obstacles.  To celebrate her in a way that portrays her as a hero, though, violates our basic values and ideals.

I write this not to pass judgment on Whitney Houston or to condemn her, but rather as a call for us to reflect on how we view pop icons, celebrities and the impact of how we relate to them has on our children.    Who do we hold in the highest esteem?  Who do we define as our heroes?  What values and ideals do we hold most dear?  How do we respond to adversity?  Do we conquer our demons, struggles and addictions?  

Allow me to contrast the reaction of the world this week to the tragic passing of Whitney Houston, with the reaction of two boys who lost their Mother at a young age. This past Sunday, Yocheved and I attended a siyum ha’shas of her cousin, Aton Holtzer in memory of the 25th yahrzeit of his Mother and Sister who died tragically in a fire.  Aton was 8 at the time and his brother Ariel was 6.  They had every excuse in the world to underachieve, live an apathetic and complacent life, turn to drugs or alcohol and approach the world with a sense of entitlement.   

Instead, they each responded to their unfathomable tragedy and loss by working hard to realize their potentials and become amazing people.  They have honored their mother’s memory by completing shas, doing chesed, building beautiful families and cherishing the special memories.

As I sat listening to their words coupled with the flow of their tears all these years later, I couldn’t help but think, individuals like this are truly our heroes worthy of our honor and esteem.  

We cannot control the cards we are dealt in life, but it is in our power to decide how we play them.   We all face adversity in one form or another.  It is the individuals that overcome them that are truly worthy of our honor.

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