March 2nd, 2023

It’s early March in Los Angeles, and Oscars excitement is well-and-truly upon us. Particularly after last year’s “slap” debacle between Will Smith and Chris Rock, all eyes are on this year’s event — not just to see which movie wins the coveted Best Picture category, but also to gauge how the Academy Awards ceremony recovers following that disturbing episode.

And Rock has broken his silence regarding the slap, joking about it at a South Carolina gig in January. “The thing people want to know [is this]: did it hurt? Hell yeah, it hurt,” Rock said, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The buildup to the Oscars is always very dramatic, and then, on the day itself – there’s the movie stars on the red carpet, speculation about who the winners will be, camera crews everywhere, and excitement in the air as roads close in Hollywood and Beverly Hills to accommodate the after-parties. For one day, if only for that one day, Los Angeles seems to be at the center of the universe.

Some years ago, I discovered a group of people for whom the Academy Awards is an extremely important event – even though almost no one has ever heard of them. Known as “seat fillers,” they have the curious role of filling empty seats during the drawn-out awards ceremony, when actors, directors, producers, and other invited guests have to slip out for a bathroom break, so that when panoramic shots of the audience are broadcast around the world, none of the seats in the Dolby Theater™ are empty.

Dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns, “seat fillers” line the walls of the theater, conveniently placed to fill a seat as and when they are required. According to Refinery 29, the sea of glittery gowned and suited folk you see on your TV screens at home is classic Hollywood: an illusion created for your viewing pleasure.

There are roughly 300 “seat fillers” each year, chosen out of thousands who apply for the opportunity to be in close proximity to the stars. And those who make it through the selection process must be at the venue by 10:15 am, fully made-up and dressed in their best, for an event that only begins at 5 pm.

I was astounded at the apparent enthusiasm for the “seat filler” role – at first glance, being a mere “filler” does not seem like such an attractive prospect. And yet, “seat fillers” all seem to love it. One seat filler at the 94th Academy Awards even wrote that she’d “do it again in a heartbeat.” Go figure, as they say. And then again, maybe there’s something to it.

Perhaps it is serendipity that the Oscars always occur at around the same time as the Torah portions describing the Mishkan construction project – which include instructions for the use of precious stones in the ephod and breastplate worn by the High Priest.

These stones are initially referred to in the text (Ex. 25:7) as אַבְנֵי מִלוּאִים – “filler stones.” It is only several chapters later (Ex. 28:17-20) that we discover these gems include, among others, emerald, sapphire, chrysolite, and amethyst. Surely referring to these gems as “fillers” seems rather odd, and somewhat misplaced.

The most compelling explanation is that true value only comes from being able to make something, or someone, whole. It doesn’t matter how beautiful something is – it has zero value if it is not actively filling a gap somehow, somewhere. Intriguingly, in Israel, annual IDF reserve duty for those who have gone back to civilian life is called “miluim.”

Elsewhere in the Torah, the word “miluim” means “consecration” or “ordination.” For example, at the end of Parshat Tzav (Lev. 8:33) the Torah refers to the priests’ period of ordination as “yemei miluim” – “days of miluim.”

The act of “miluim” – when a person becomes a “filler” – clearly involves much more than merely plugging a gap. Rather than meaning “to fill,” it might better be translated as “to fulfil.” Which explains perfectly why annual IDF reserve duty is referred to as “miluim” – the word “miluim” perfectly connotes the IDF reservists’ dedication to a sacred duty. Instead of them dismissing their “miluim” month as a waste of time, as some of them tend to do, they should celebrate this opportunity to be “fillers” who ensure the safety and security of Israel.

The legendary New York Jewish educator, Rabbi Yaakov Bender, expands on this idea with a beautiful explanation he heard from his teacher, the Mir rosh yeshivah Rabbi Shmuel Berenbaum (1920-2008). As individuals, we all have unique qualities that make us valuable members of society. Whether it is our talents and skills, or whether it is our unique personality traits, these attributes allow us to contribute to the world around us in meaningful ways.

But what truly sets us apart is our ability to “hold space” for others. Everything else pales by comparison. When we provide support, comfort, and guidance to those around us, we are fulfilling our ultimate purpose in life. And that is what being a “filler” really means.

The concept of holding space is not just about being there for others; it’s about creating a safe and nurturing environment where they can feel heard, understood, and validated. It requires empathy, compassion, and a deep understanding of the human experience. When we hold space for others, we help them navigate through life’s challenges and find meaning and purpose in their personal struggles.

This idea of holding space is exemplified in the “avnei miluim,” the precious gems worn over the heart of the High Priest in the sanctuary. These gems symbolize the importance of taking responsibility for the well-being of others and filling the gaps in their lives with love, compassion, and understanding. By embodying these qualities, we become the most precious of gems by making a positive impact on the world that far outweighs the value of any other quality or attribute we may possess.

And while being a “seat filler” at the Oscars may not quite match this ideal, it can certainly act as a reminder to us that being a “filler” is probably far more important than being a Hollywood star.

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