An exclusive interview with the Hassidic reggae superstar
Matisyahu's PassoverAn exclusive interview with the Hassidic reggae superstar
Music superstar Matisyahu will celebrate the Passover seders (April 12-13) at one of the USA’s 85 Chabad-Lubavitch college campus centers.
Rabbi and Mrs. Simcha and Tzirel Levenberg, program directors of the Chabad House at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, will welcome Matisyahu, his wife Tahli and their baby Laivy to their Chabad House this coming Wednesday. Levenberg described the Jewish student body at Amherst as "absolutely thrilled that Matis is coming to the seder at Chabad House. The entire campus is buzzing with excitement."
We caught up with Matisyahu yesterday, and probed him for his thoughts about Passover and for the reason behind his Passover choice.
Chabad.org: What can you tell us about your Passover seder?
Matisyahu: My earliest memories of a Passover seder involve my grandfather, who was a tall athletic man, a basketball player. We got a great kick out of "stealing" his afikoman. The fact that we were actually able to outsmart him and find the matzah he hid was a real thrill. And, to top it off, he was generous with his prizes...!
Today, on one level, Passover is a pretty difficult holiday for me. I mean, beyond the neurosis of having to clean the house like crazy, you then sit at the seder and practically stuff matzah down your throat until the point of explosion (laughs). I mean, it's not particularly easy...
Chabad.org: So is that all? Clean till you drop and stuff yourself silly?
Matisyahu: Well, no. By no means. Passover is all about breaking out of our constraints, attaining personal freedom. Each of us is enslaved inwardly in some way or another and Passover helps us break out of our personal slavery and become free. Doing things that are beyond our comfort zone, pushing our limits for the sake of a higher purpose, a higher calling, actually liberates us.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe once pointed out that Howard Hughes was actually the most shackled, the most enslaved person. The more he amassed in the material world, the more lonely and paranoid he became. He died pitifully.
True freedom is a state of being. Accepting a Higher Being is actually liberating.
Chabad.org: How, in your opinion, does one attain personal freedom?
Matisyahu: Well, for me, introspection and meditation is integral. Chassidic philosophy places high value on both and offers amazing mind and heart methodologies for each. Lots of prayer and Chasidic meditation really helps me focus.
Chabad.org: And how do you remain conscious of this freedom?
Matisyahu: I continue to study Torah daily, with particular emphasis on Chasidic discourses. Especially before holidays. It helps make the rituals and practices more real and integrated into what I am experiencing in the here and now. Both my wife, Tahli, and I try to learn as much as possible. It keeps us grounded and focused on what is important.
Chabad.org: How does this impact your music?
Matisyahu: All of my songs are influenced and inspired by the teachings that inspire me. I want my music to have meaning, to be able to touch people and make them think. Chasidism teaches that music is "the quill of the soul." Music taps into a very deep place and speaks to us in a way that regular words can't. Breaking out of slavery is definitely a theme in my music:
You're a slave to yourself and you don't even know…if your cup's already full then it is bound to overflow.
I think this is a concept many people don't recognize. We think of slavery as someone else enslaving us, but in truth, we are often the ones enslaving ourselves. We are so busy being influenced by money, by society, by external pressures, that our true identity and abilities can be hidden."This is the humble man's bread!"
It is this slavery that keeps people caught up in "Egypt," in the false safety net of their lives, in their external distractions, and it keeps people from going into the wilderness of their souls, from delving deeply into themselves.
It is only when we realize what we have within, that we can act from the inside out instead of the outside in.
Chabad.org: Speaking about matzah and music. We were originally scheduled to talk on Friday but you got busy at Sony. What happened there?
Matisyahu: I was finishing morning prayers and saw a group of guys getting ready to distribute matzahs in Manhattan, and I kind of got nostalgic. It reminded me of when I was learning in yeshiva a couple of years ago and would go to hand out matzahs or menorahs or whatever was relevant to that holiday.
So on a whim I bought a bunch of boxes and headed to Sony headquarters in the city to share the experience of the hand-baked matzah with some friends.
Some of them were deeply touched, others had already left for the weekend. I left the matzah with others at Sony to pass on.
This is actually a perfect symbol for what we're talking about.
While bread is filled with air, representing ego, Matzah is flat, representing humility. You know, so much of the music industry is about inflating the ego to the point where it becomes an idol. Where you become an idol.
The message I am trying to convey is to chop down that ego, to chop down the machine that controls so many, and to bring a message of humility and holiness to the world. I want to help others recognize their potential within and their ability to break out of their boundaries, their constraints.
I brought the matzahs, the flat, egoless bread to Sony -- and Sony is distributing it for me.
I left a note for each person I missed saying, "This is the humble man's bread!"
Chabad.org: Okay, so the seder night comes around and while the matzah expands your intestines your mind is focused on liberation and humility. This can be done anywhere, can it not?
Matisyahu: Well, yes, technically it can. But it's important to have the right environment. If for whatever reason the environment is not available to you, you have to go create it. But one can hardly discount environment.
Chabad.org: And your choice of environment this year?
Matisyahu: We are going to join Rabbi Simcha and Tzirel Levenberg, and 150-200 of their student guests, at the campus Chabad House in Amherst.They are such awesome, fun, down-to-earth and kind-hearted people, not to mention, two of our closest friends.
Chabad.org: But why not something more plush like a hotel or something? Surely some other friends would like to come along...I am trying to bring a message of humility and holiness to the world.
Matisyahu: Celebrating holidays at a Chabad House was a big part of my own spiritual growth. For a few years I was the one at the table coming for inspiration and a deeper understanding of my heritage. I often repeat how Rabbi Korn at NYU was integral to my growth as a Jew.
For this holiday Tahli and I felt that it would be really nice to go back into the Chabad on Campus environment and share our own experiences with the students and learn from their own struggles and their own search.
Chabad.org: What do you expect to share with a roomful of students?
Matisyahu: First of all, I already share a very close affinity to the students in that room.
It wasn't long ago that I was in college, and just searching for meaning, searching for something real. I wasn't into following the mainstream and going with the flow; I knew I had to find something that was real, that had meaning, that had relevance.
I think the college years are a time when so many students are trying to liberate themselves from their environment, from the "machine" that surrounds them. They know something is off but they don't always know where to go or what they are even looking for.
That’s why I appreciate the Chabad Houses on campus so much. Whenever I visit a campus Chabad House I find a place where students can come and ask questions, get answers, and see a different way to look at life.
Chabad.org: And where did your Chabad House experience take you?
Matisyahu: You know, I was always searching. I always felt intuitively that everything we were experiencing in this physical world had to have a deeper counterpart, emotionally, spiritually, and so on. Chabad House introduced me to Torah in general and especially, for me, to Chasidic philosophy. When I started learning everything finally clicked. Finally there was validation that this world was not random, that everything connected in a seamless manner, even though it does not always appear that way.
At Amherst's Campus Chabad House I'll try to share some of what I learned, some of what this Festival of Liberation means to me.
Another great thing is that Tali will be teaching the students as well. At many of the places we've been, especially on campus, Tali does some teaching. There are just so many issues and stereotypes that people have about Judaism, particularly regarding a woman's role within Judaism, and when Tali is able to speak to people and address their concerns, it is incredible to watch how people open up and want to learn.
Chabad.org: So in some ways it sounds like your Passover experience will be a mixture of similar events or things.
Matisyahu: Yes, that's definitely a great way to sum it up.
The choice to go to the Chabad House for seders was a no-brainer, as it is actually a convergence of interests and passions.
There is the search of the youth, the sincerity of the student's quest, which is deeply a part of me, to which I can totally relate and very much want to help.
And there is the message of Pesach which is all about breaking out of our constraints and being liberated.
And it is all taking place at a Chabad House where these ideals are learned and lived 24 hours a day.
What more could we possibly ask for?
Chabad.org: Well, it sounds like you're pretty clear about your priorities.
Matisyahu: You know, just last night I had an experience that put everything into perspective for me. We can get so caught up in our own lives that we lose sight of the bigger picture. Last night I was asked to visit an 18 year old kid who is suffering in the hospital from a terrible disease. It was his "last wish" for me to visit him, though I pray to dance at his wedding one day. When I got there, the first thing he asked me was to tell him a story about the Rebbe. This kid is Jewish, but he's not from a Lubavitch family or anything, but that was the first thing he wanted from me. It was so powerful. Because it was really the Rebbe's teachings that transformed my life.
So I told him some stories and realized that it was the anniversary of the Rebbe's birthday that night. And I felt good, really good, feeling that I was making the Rebbe happy. I so wish I had known him and met him, but here I was doing exactly what he lived for, what I think he'd wanted me to be doing, being there and speaking to that boy.
In that sense what happened was really liberating. Like a taste of Passover before Passover.
You know, when you focus on another there is just no room for yourself, for your own ego. He may have thought I was doing him a favor by coming, but he was really the one doing me the favor.
Chabad.org: Any parting words?
Matisyahu: Just want to wish everyone a great Passover. May we all find personal and universal freedom! Peace.