Matisyahu's 8 Chanukah Insights
Light up and be a hero.
1. The real weapon is not ammunition but ideas. Ideas win wars.
The Chanukah uprising was brought about because the Seleucid Hellenist empire (an offshoot of an empire left behind by Alexander of Macedonia) was imposing its civilization of Hellenism on a nation that believed in one God. Hellenists offered pleasures and a good life — a sensual, body-oriented civilization inhabited with many gods and deities. It sounds quite tempting. But with all its temptation, it negates the deepest recesses of the human search. Human beings search for ideas, for inspiration, for one great redeeming hope that will make us one. This is represented by the belief in one God, as opposed to the many infighting, quarreling deities of the Greek Olympus. True, many gods, with their politics and failings, reflect pretty well human society.
But humans have souls. We all search for one spirit that will unite us, as the ancient Jewish prophets of the Bible said more than 3,000 years ago — that all nations will together serve one God. This idea of unity, of oneness at our core, gives mankind hope and courage against all oppressive regimes and the radicalized, death-obsessed, fragmented dark forces that are out there. This idea, despite all the terror and intimidation, wins: the human belief in one God who created us all in His image. Even though pagan gods are much more visible, accessible and tangible, and one God has no image and cannot be described, this vision that has no shape, the one hope, will prevail. And no weapon or act of terror can overcome this hope.
2. Had the Maccabees lost, the world as we know it wouldn’t have existed. We would have probably continued to live in a world inhabited by many gods living on Olympus and fighting with each other, as opposed to a world in which people believe in one God.
We want to rekindle the light of inspiration, of hope, of wisdom.
This was an observation made by Bertrand Russell. He noted that had the Maccabees been defeated, and glamorous pagan Hellenism would have stomped out the faith in one invisible God, the idea of monotheism would have perished in history. Had this happened, to this very day we would have been fragmented, deeply believing that wars are the right way to go, because even gods fight among themselves up there on Olympus. A world that believes in one God is a world that believes that we share the same world, that we live in the same universe.
3. Hellenists were wise, but they rejected spirituality. They believed in body, not in soul. Body without a soul is dead. Wisdom without spirit is dead, too. We want our children not only to be smart. We want them to be alive.
Lighting the menorah, the candelabra with eight branches for eight candles, represents the eight days it burned in the restored Temple with just a scarce amount of oil. But the very symbol of burning light is the symbol not only of victory but also of the light restored at the Temple. Dark forces can come and destroy the Temple. They can desecrate it and make it lie in ruins. And when we conquer the Temple back, the most important thing we want to do is rekindle the light of inspiration, of hope, of wisdom.
Hellenists represented a civilization of the mind, of philosophy, of technology, of achievement. But they didn’t believe in spirituality, as we understand it. At the end of the day, mankind needs spirituality, a light that will burn in the Temple, light that we need to preserve and to keep burning every single day. We want our children not only to be successful. We want them to have the sense of the sacred — the sacredness of life, of love, of relationship, of humanity.
4. Light is not an obvious thing. In a dark, cold world, light is something worth fighting for, and sometimes even sacrificing one’s life for.
We see a lot of darkness around us. And mostly what we do is sigh and escape into our own little worlds where we keep ourselves busy. Do we have the courage to acknowledge that there is light in this world? That it has chance? Are we willing to put our lives on the line for the hope that this world can and will become a better place?
5. Even if you have just a little bit of light, light it up! Don’t wait to have enough of it. Because it will never happen.
Light up just one candle! Don’t wait. If you wait, it won’t come, ever. Do now the little you can.
When Maccabees won, they found the Temple ruined and defiled. Remnants of pagan sacrifices, idols were strewn all over. They cleaned it up and started looking around for an amphora full of extra virgin oil that was not desecrated. They found a little jug that would be enough only for one day. Their dilemma was this: wait for a week until a new supply of pure oil will come, or light it up, even though it will inevitably go out after a day and make many people disappointed. They decided to light it up. And the miracle of Chanukah is that the oil in the little jug burned for as long as eight days, not one. We learn from it — you have little light? This light won’t be enough to illuminate the world? Light up just one candle! Don’t wait. If you wait, it won’t come, ever. Do now the little you can.
6. Each day must bring more light in the world. If there will be the same light as yesterday, the world will get darker by the day.
Each day of Chanukah it is customary that we add one more candle, so that we go from one candle on the first day to eight candles on the eighth day. By this we signify that the miracle and the wonderment grew from day to day. But it also means something simpler — the amount of light that was good enough yesterday is not enough anymore for today. And what’s good enough today is not good enough for tomorrow. We need more. More light. More love. More truth. Every day we need more. Because we grow. If we are the same today as we were yesterday, it means that today didn’t exist for us.
7. Sharing light with others requires courage. Courage to believe in light, because unfortunately, many people give in to the darkness.
Chanukah lights are lit when it gets dark, and it is a custom to light them in a public domain, or at least in a way that people on the street can see them. Because it’s nice to sit in your living room discussing issues, arguing and creating a better world. But what about bringing the light out? Stepping out of the comfort of your own house and roaming the streets helping others? Making their night a bit brighter?
8. Give yourself a chance to be a hero!
Most of us give up because we tell ourselves, “Who am I to do this? Let me be the way I am. Let me drag my feet through life, oppressed by habit and quiet desperation.” You can rebel! You can be free to choose to live your life for the truth!
Matisyahu’s annual Festival of Lights concert series takes place Nov. 29-30, Dec. 4-Dec. 5 at the Brooklyn Bowl and the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Week