The Art Of The In-Between


Candlelighting: 6:10 p.m.
(Oct. 6); 6:02 p.m. (Oct. 11); 7:01 p.m. (Oct. 12); 5:59 p.m. (Oct.15)

Torah: Exodus 33:12-34:26;
Numbers 29:17-22

Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:18-39:16

Havdalah: 7:09 p.m. (Oct. 7);
6:58 p.m. (Oct. 14)

These 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 these days are part of Sukkot; but ordinary, because only the first and last days of 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 the hot climates of the Talmud) 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). 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: 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. However, 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 depict God (particularly in this season of holy days) 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.

The next time you attend an important meeting, watch how people vote. Some of them pause reflectively to weigh the issues, and slowly raise their hand. Others raise their hand so quickly and ferociously that you think they will disconnect their arm from its socket. Here’s a rule of thumb: beware the speed with which voters throw up their hands.

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 read-out 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 a little humility. 

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is the professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at the Hebrew Union College, and the author of “We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism” (Jewish Lights Press).