I don’t know how many of you know this, but an event took place this week that shook the world—at least the Jewish world and the music world. One colleague wrote to me this week that it’s the biggest thing since the invention of gefilte fish. Matthew Miller, better known as Matisyahu, had shaved off his beard!
For those who have been living under a rock for the past several years and are unfamiliar with his music, Matisyahu is the biggest Hasidic rock star in the world today. 10 years ago he became Chabad/Lubuvitcher chassid. He had always been inspired by the music of Bob Marley, and somehow he managed to bring these wildly different worlds together. Matisyahu has developed a worldwide following in places as diverse as Tokyo, Los Angeles and Crown Heights in Brooklyn as they sing along with him in the mosh pits songs about Mashiach, Jerusalem, life and Gd. And now, without a beard, Matisyahu has made it clear that he’s moving on in his personal spiritual journey. Earlier this week, he posted a picture of himself on line sans the beard with the following message:
When I started becoming religious 10 years ago it was a very natural and organic process. It was my choice. My journey to discover my roots and explore Jewish spirituality—not through books but through real life. At a certain point I felt the need to submit to a higher level of religiosity…to move away from my intuition and to accept an ultimate truth. I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules, lots of them, or else I would somehow fall apart. I’m reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission. Get ready for an amazing year filled with music of rebirth. For those concerned with my naked face, don’t worry…you haven’t seen the last of my facial hair.
So the Jewish and the rock world are in a state of crisis, today. As if we Jews don’t have enough to worry about… People are asking: what will Matisyahu’s decision to shave mean for the state of world Jewry? Will he remain observant even if he isn’t Hasidic? And will Matisyahu disappear from the stage now that he no longer has a Hasidic persona to keep him in the limelight? And why should we care?
Which brings me to the hero of this week’s Torah portion: Joseph. He was the original Jewish superstar—prime minister of all of ancient Egypt. Of course, he didn’t start out that way. Joseph had to hit bottom before he could rise to fame. He started out as the pampered son of Jacob and an obnoxious younger brother who loved to strut about in the multicolored tunic his father had given him. Joseph had dreams of grandeur and wasn’t embarrassed to tell others about them. Is it any wonder that his brothers didn’t like him? Of course, Joseph’s obnoxious behavior didn’t justify the brothers’ decision to throw him into a pit or sell him into slavery, but it’s not hard to understand why they had a hard time tolerating their baby brother or dealing with their father’s unabashed favoritism.
And it was all because of that k’tonet pasim, the multicolored tunic that his father had given him. This coat was an external symbol that came to define Joseph. For his brothers, it was a constant reminder of parental favoritism. And for Joseph, it became the embodiment of his position as favored son and something more. Joseph failed to see himself as one of the brothers. He could not differentiate between himself and his coat. The coat was his claim to fame and he couldn’t imagine himself without it.
Let me ask you: are we so different? How much to we allow ourselves to be defined by external symbols. It may be the car we drive or the neighborhood in which we live. Sometimes it’s a title such as “Dr.,” or “lawyer” or “rabbi.” Sometimes we carry objects that become the embodiment of how we want others to see us, like a designer handbag or a gold belt buckle. And some people grow a beard.
I have to say that I understand Matisyahu’s need to shave off his beard. I think he came to realize that it was more important than his music. Who knows, maybe it was? Matisyahu wants to be known as a musician in his own right, not as a Hasidic Jew who happens to sing reggae. I only hope that he also realizes that it’s not necessary to throw out the baby with the bathwater. One doesn’t need a beard to be a good person or an observant Jew, for that matter.
Unfortunately we live in a world where we tend to judge people by outer appearances rather than inner essence. Rabbi Yehuda—who edited the Mishnah around the year 200 CE and who was the Nasi, the most powerful Jewish leader in his time—includes in his authoritative version of the Mishnah (Pirkey Avot 4:27): Al tistakel b’kankan ela b’ma shehyeysh bo, “Don’t look at a jar, but at its contents.” It’s interesting that as a man was known as Nasi, “the prince,” most of his life, understood better than most that titles don’t make the person. Character makes the person. Judaism teaches us that we are measured by our deeds, by the small ways we live our daily lives and the person we strive to be.
In some ways, I think that Matisyahu has an opportunity to make a greater impact on Jewish life now by being a beardless Jew who happens to love rock music but is still committed to living a Jewish life. Too many Jews confuse beards with piety. Like a Mezuzah, what makes a person kosher is not how they appear on the outside but what is found on the inside and how they live their lives quietly and privately each day.
While living in Egypt Joseph came to understand that he didn’t need a coat of many colors to be Gd’s messenger or to fulfill the dreams of his youth. He came to understand that the dreams were not about him. As he later said (Gen. 45:7-8) to his brothers, “Gd sent me to ensure your survival on earth and to save your lives…It was not you who sent me here but Gd.” There is none of the bravado or self-importance here of his earlier years.
Tuesday night we will light the 1st candle of Hanukah. One of the heroes of the Hanukah story is Matisyahu, the father of the Maccabees. He was a priest and when he was ordered to sacrifice a pig by the Syrian-Greeks, he slew the guards and cried out (First Book of Maccabees 2:27): “All who are for Hashem and His Torah follow me.” He understood who he was and refused to allow others to turn him into something that he wasn’t.
I’d like to wish today’s Matisyahu good luck and success in his career. Like Matisyahu of old, I hope that he’ll refuse to allow others to tempt him into change his inner Jewish core…and I hope he won’t forget who he is or who he has the potential to be. In the end, Matisyahu owes nothing to his fans. But he does have an obligation to himself, his family, and to Gd to rise to his Jewish potential; and so do we all. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis