By Danny Anderson
This semester, I taught Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, the story of young, Hasidic Jew, Danny Saunders, and his journey to an orthodoxy that still engages the world outside his Hasidic community.
In an attempt to explain that dynamic to my mostly Catholic students, I brought up the example of Matisyahu, the hip-hop-reggae-human beatbox phenomenon who re-discovered his Jewish faith, ultimately becoming Hasidic, even as he pursued a pop-music career, bringing his spiritual insights as a cultural gift to a secular audience.
Matisyahu’s decision to leave the yeshiva to perform for gentiles in the clubs of New York was made with the blessing of his rabbi. They decided that bringing the wisdom of Judaism to the rest of the world was the best way to use the gifts God blessed the singer with. In this way he resembles Danny Saunders, who eventually gains the blessing of his rabbi-father to become a Tzadik to the gentiles. For me, a Christian, the lessons of his song “One Day” is a blessing full of wisdom as I consider Advent in the year 2020.
The lesson took me down a rabbit-trail and I began to listen intently to Matisyahu’s music. There was something inherently inspirational that transcended Matisyahu’s Jewish faith and gave me comfort. With all of the emotional, physical, and spiritual challenges 2020 has unleashed, I was particularly drawn to the eschatological “One Day,” from the album Light. Matisyahu’s beautiful tenor and expert vocal phrasing work with a catchy, lifting melody that culminates in a chant that becomes nothing less than an anthem of hope. As I listened to the song on repeat for several days, I also realized that, as a Christian, Matishyahu’s song was preparing me for Advent, the time of reflection about the bitter hole in the universe the birth of Christ filled.
Co-written by Ari Levine, Bruno Mars (yes, I was shocked too!), Matisyahu, and Philip Lawrence, the song looks forward to an impossible redemption for humankind, and the hope it offers is held in balance with the grim state of life as we know it in the here-and-now.
Bitter laments about the present like “Blood-drenched pavement” make way for messianic hopes for a time of eternal peace “There will be no more wars/And our children will play.” As to when this resolution will happen, the chorus only repeats “One day, one day, one day.” The holding onto this vague hope is a burden, but unlike many Christian appeals for apocalypse, there is a joy in that work.
Too often in my low Protestant evangelical tradition, we looked past the here and now to the Second Coming, when “all our suffering will be o’er,” as the old song says. The problem with that theology is that it encourages a neglect, a cynicism about the world God gave us. Evangelicals have used this view to ignore catastrophic damage to the natural, political, and social worlds. This is no way to celebrate Advent.
“One Day” begins from an entirely different perspective:
Sometimes I lay
Under the moon
And thank God I’m breathing
This is no call to “get me out of here, Lord.” This is instead a recognition of the incredible gift life is. As troubled as the world is, even in 2020, the believer understands the great privilege it is to exist.
But existence is only the beginning:
Then I pray
Don’t take me soon
‘Cause I am here for a reason
How refreshing these words are to my Evangelical ears. The meaning of life is more life and the acknowledgment that it is worth living is the greatest way to demonstrate gratitude for the gift of being created by the Almighty.
Yet also recognized in these words is the fact that life is not just a gift, but also a responsibility. There is no fast-forwarding to paradise. It is a long road and the work we find ourselves doing on that road is important. Furthermore, it may just be that one of our purposes is in fact the waiting itself. The centuries of prophetic silence before the explosion of Jesus into the world was not idle, but rather marked by a perpetual vigil, one where the sufferings of life were part of the worship. This is a beautiful burden and “One Day” illustrates the beauty of bearing it.
The song also presents an interesting logical puzzle. The speaker refuses to give in to despair when faced with the pain of life:
Sometimes in my tears I drown
But I never let it get me down
So when negativity surrounds
I know some day it’ll all turn around
What follows that “because” is a paradox:
All my life I’ve been waiting for
I’ve been praying for
For the people to say
That we don’t wanna fight no more
There will be no more wars
And our children will play
In essence, he “knows” that life will eventually get better because he’s been waiting for it to do so for all his life. Think about the incredible faith contained in that paradox. It is faith without evidence, belief without payoff. In other words, hope is an end to itself.
This attitude has a distinct “next year in Jerusalem” quality to it, but it also strikes me as an appropriate idea for Christians to meditate on for Advent. It reminds me of the generations who lived and died their entire lives awaiting the Messiah and the generations who have done the same awaiting the Second Coming. Was their belief in vain? Were they fools for living and dying with hope?
Of course a life of faith without action is as hollow as one of action without faith. There is justice to be done in this life as well and seeing it done is part of the obligation we have to God, one of the reasons we wish to keep living. The song touches on this as well:
It’s not about
Win or lose
‘Cause we all lose
When they feed on the souls of the
Keep on moving though the waters stay
As if Covid wasn’t enough of a blow to our capacity for hope, 2020 has also brought into clear view the outrageous injustices America’s institutions have burdened so many of its citizens with. Immigrants are in cages at our borders and black people are murdered in full view of the public by those breaking their oath to protect and serve. The pavement of America is drenched with blood and we all bear that shame. “One Day” makes it clear that our hope cannot be one that ignores the responsibility we bear for one another as we strive for a time, however far away, where
One day we’ll all be free
And proud to be
Under the same sun
The Jewish ethical system that drives Matisyahu’s “One Day” contains a wisdom for Christians as we contemplate Advent in 2020. We need a boundless hope and a willingness to foolishly pursue it in the time we are are given.
Dr. Daniel Anderson teaches English at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA. He received his Ph.D. in English from Case Western Reserve University. He teaches a range of Rhetoric, Literature, and Film classes at the Mount, including classes on the Jewish American Novel, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Franz Kafka, the Literature of Pittsburgh, and the Classic Horror Film. He also produces and hosts the Sectarian Review Podcast, which investigates art, pop culture, politics, and religion.