What the World Cup can teach us about Chanukah (Chanukah 5783)

As we are now in the midst of the Football World Cup (no, sorry, it’s not “soccer”), I think it’s timely to quote Diego Maradona, the mythical Argentinian player. Speaking about football, that modern philosopher once said, “la pelota no se mancha,” “the ball doesn’t get stained.” He meant to say that there was something in the game that would always be pure and good, despite the corruption of FIFA officials, the political interference, the monumental transfer fees, and the dark machinations of some club owners.

However, with his multiple drug convictions, his unrecognized children and the infamous “hand of God,” Maradona himself did a lot to “stain the ball.” Today, the “beautiful game” is shrouded in multiple controversies that the present World Cup, widely believed to have been assigned to Qatar through bribery, is not helping to dispel.

And yet, the magic is still there. When the players hit the field, there’s a moment in which there’s still something pure, honest and noble about the game. It is as if no matter how badly they try to “stain the ball,” Messi, Neymar and Mbape will “purify it,” playing as though they were children kicking it around in the schoolyard and the world would dream. In those moments, nothing seems profaned forever.

These days, it’s not just football that is stained, but virtually every aspect of our society appears debased and blemished. The level of trust in public institutions is lower than ever. All of the fifteen key institutions of American life show historical record lows of public trust. All of them: The military, the police, the medical system, the church or organized religion, the public school, the supreme court, the presidency, organized labor, banks, big technology companies, newspapers, television news, the criminal justice system, big business and congress. (Congress leads the hall of horror, with 7% of public trust). It appears there aren’t any more bastions of honesty and integrity left. It’s as though even the ‘holies of holies’ of our society are freely stepped on with mud-covered boots.

One of the advantages of being a four-thousand-year-old people is that, whatever happens, we’ve been there before. We experienced a time in which the dirty boots of soldiers trampled the holy of holies of our temple; a time in which the most sacred was defaced and the holy was profaned.

That’s the story we remember during Chanukah, a story in which our dearest institution – the temple of Jerusalem – was deliberately soiled by cruelty, idolatry, and intolerance. The Syrian-Greek armies of Antiochus knew that to disarm a society, you need to attack their core beliefs, what most sacred to them, the things they most cherish. And so they did, sacrificing and pig in the temple’s altar and forbidding the practice of Jewish rituals.

The Chanukah story is a revolt against oppression and intolerance, but it’s also an epic story of hope. It would have been natural for the Maccabees to sink into despair, to believe that there wasn’t a way back from the destruction of all they held dear. It would have been understandable if, like many other peoples of antiquity, they would have dismayed at the enormity of the task ahead and simply let the tectonic movement of history shape their fate. They could have chosen the paradoxical relief that surrendering to hopelessness brings.

And yet, the message of Chanukah is the exact opposite. There is, indeed, a bigger story than the bravery of the Maccabees: What was profaned can made holy again, what is broken can always be mended, what was defaced can yet be sacred and what was trampled can regain its dignity. In sum, Chanukah tells us that nothing is beyond repair; nothing needs to remain desecrated forever and what’s been destroyed can always be rebuilt.

Amid the all-encompassing impurity and overwhelming hopelessness of the defaced temple, there’s always a tiny bit of pure oil in the flask. Barely enough to ignite the light of hope; to start the process of healing and to help us believe that miracles are possible.

The ball doesn’t need to stay stained forever. The game can still be beautiful. Our democracy can be repaired, the faith we used to have in each other can be rebuilt, the dialogue we had can be made respectful again. It only takes finding that little bit of oil, that place in ourselves that hasn’t been tarnished by cynicism and defaced by despair; that inexhaustible reservoir of hope that keeps propelling us forward, even in the darkest of times.

When we light a candle, we realize that darkness is an illusion; it doesn’t have physical entity, it is merely the absence of light. With acts of kindness and compassion, with empathy and solidarity, we can expel the darkness in ourselves and our societies. Like darkness, all that toxicity can only exist when we refuse to shine our lights. Think about how much of our social and political ills, authoritarianism, intolerance, populism, derive from the (false) belief that things are beyond repair and therefore, there is nothing to do but burn it all down in some apocalyptic bonfire.

So, as we light our candles this year, let’s choose belief over nihilism, hope over cynicism and rebuilding over commiseration. Let's realize that, combined, our little bits of pure oil can fuel a different world in which darkness is not real, just a nightmare that goes away with the first light of day.

Chag Sameach!