Sukkot’s shades of grey

Sukkot’s shades of grey

Sukkot | Exodus 33:12-34:26

The middle days of Sukkot are called chol hamo’ed, literally, “the ordinary [part] of the sacred.” We never use the English because without an explanation, it makes no sense.

A better “translation” might be “not completely sacred, but not completely ordinary either; instead, a mixture of both” — sacred, because they are part of Sukkot; but ordinary, because only the first and last days of the Sukkot week are altogether holy. 

All of which raises the problem of how to treat things that are “both/and” rather than “one or the other.” A case in point is funerals on chol hamo’ed.

Jewish law advocates speedy burial, lest we have to watch bodily decomposition (common in hot climates during Talmudic times) and look away in disgust, a violation of the Jewish value of respecting the dead. Holidays, however, entail a countervailing obligation to rejoice. So burials on Sukkot are postponed a day — in part, for immediate mourners (although they will probably be saddened anyway), and in part, because Jewish law obligates everyone familiar with the deceased to attend the funeral (again, to respect the dead), and they, at least, should not have their joy ruined by a funeral on a holiday. 

But chol hamo’ed is partly sacred (funerals are prohibited) and partly ordinary (funerals are required). So we compromise. We do the funeral to respect the dead, but we shorten the service, to minimize interference with holiday joy.

At stake is a larger issue yet: whether life itself is digital or analog. Here’s what I mean.

Life is actually analog — like old-time mercury thermometers and clocks with sweep hands, sliding from one exact temperature, time, and distance to the next. We prefer digital measurements, however, because they convert analog imprecision into satisfying certainty: 99 degrees or 100 degrees, say, but nothing in between. As our culture goes increasingly digital, we risk identifying life as digital, too — choices between two certainties. But life, being analog, can easily be something in the middle — like chol hamo’ed. 

Rabbinic thinking, generally (not just for chol hamo’ed), recognizes this messiness. Talmudic debate may cite contrary opinions but apply them both, for different circumstances. It sometimes asks expressly, “b’mai askinan?” (“what are we dealing with?”), a request for the conditions where a rule applies. Rules regularly conflict. They need not hold universally. 

Fanaticism is the faulty assumption that the world is “digital,” altogether black or white, no complexity allowed. Take criminality: Criminals are criminals, and should be punished; but they may also be first offenders, juveniles, mentally impaired, or Jean Valjean of Les Miserables. Thinking digitally, his single-minded pursuer, Inspector Javert, applies justice absolutely, missing the intricacies of the case. So too in politics: good people who differ should see that real life demands sometimes one position, sometimes the other, and oftentimes, mixtures of both. 

We even picture God (in these High Holidays just past) as a mixture of justice and mercy, not just one or the other. Beware of extremists who simplify a world as if they know more than God.

We should never be wishy washy on our principles: but the application of those principles can be tricky. As the Talmud knows, any specific case may entail consideration of two opposite and equally valid solutions. They may well be cases of chol hamo’ed messiness: not a misleading digital readout making it one thing or another, but an analog mixture of them both. To be sure, we need to vote our conscience in the end, but oftentimes, with at least a little humility.

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