Michigan vs. Ohio State. One of the longest and most passionate rivalries in college football.
Last Saturday, more than 111,000 people crowded into Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor to watch these two storied teams battle for a shot at the Big Ten Championship. Nearly 16 million people watched on television.
The passion of Michigan Wolverine and Ohio State Buckeye fans is legendary. At Ohio State, every “M” on campus is blocked out. The Ohio State Veterinary School painted the fire hydrants in their dog park Michigan gold and blue because … well, you know.
What is it that fuels that kind of passion? Why do millions of Michigan and Ohio State fans become so enthralled with the results of a football game?
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel wrote: “Every person must know and understand that deep within them a candle burns, and their candle is unlike the candle of any other. There is no person without a candle.”
Our celebration of Chanukah – the Festival of Lights – recalls the conquest of the Syrian Greek King Antiochus. In order to consolidate his hold on the land of Judea, he required his new subjects relinquish everything that contributed to their old sense of identity or belonging. Jewish ritual was banned, Jewish texts were outlawed. As he extinguished the light of the Menorah, Antiochus sought to extinguish every marker of Jewish identity.
Instead, Antiochus decreed that Jews participate in Greek pagan traditions, celebrate Greek festivals, and adhere to Greek customs and practices. His demands were designed to get the Jews to join the new nation – to root for the Greeks.
Human beings are hard-wired for connection. We yearn for relationships, to feel a part of something larger and bigger than ourselves. Sebastian Junger in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging suggests, “When people are actively engaged in a cause their lives have more purpose…”
All of us naturally want to belong. We want to feel that the individual flame that burns within us is valued and appreciated – that our light matters. And it is our families that kindle the candles within us, and nurture those sparks into our individual flames.
The bonds of relationship in family are powerful and sacred. They affirm our inner sense of worth and drive our sense of purpose. So often, especially in crisis, people build their entire identities around caring for and nurturing their loved ones. People value their relationships even more than their lives. Neuropsychologist Paul Pearsall teaches: “Our most basic instinct is not for survival, but for family.”
Our individual lights shine even brighter in a group. Go to a football game – thousands of people wearing the same colors and uniforms, singing the same songs, rooting for the same team. Fans remember the same history, they root for the same cause, they call out players by their first names as if they are family, and scream encouragement until they lose their voices. Fans feel elated when their team scores, suffer heartbreak in defeat. Perfect strangers congratulate fellow fans with high-fives after a touchdown – we’re all family.
But, the unfortunate paradox is that too often we nurture our holy sense of pride and belonging through contempt or even hatred of the other. We think our light will glow brighter if we extinguish the lights that shine in others. Contempt, Junger teaches, is the toxin that tears societies apart. “If you want to make a society work,” he writes, “then you don’t keep underscoring the places where you’re different—you underscore your shared humanity.”
The story of Chanukah teaches us to resist those who seek to extinguish our inner lights, but also to resist the urge to snuff out the candles that shine in others.
Instead, we must nurture the flames that burn inside those who are different from us, outside our families, who root for different teams.
Imagine what we might see and learn from what their inner light illumines for us.
As Rabbi Kook writes, if we push ourselves to share the inner light within us, and also seek to reveal the light that shines in others, we will create “a great torch that will illuminate the entire world.”
Happy Chanukah – Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan Levin
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…”