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.”
Take the issue of funerals, for example. Jewish law advocates burial as quickly as possible, 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. Immediate relatives will probably be saddened anyway, but Jewish law obligates everyone familiar with the deceased to attend the funeral (again, to respect the dead), and they should not have their joy ruined by a funeral on a holiday.
So far, so good; but chol hamo’ed is partly sacred (funerals are prohibited) and partly ordinary (funerals are required). So on chol hamo’ed, we compromise. We do the funeral to respect the dead; but we shorten the service, to minimize the lessening of holiday joy.
At stake is the larger philosophical question of whether to measure experience digitally or by analog. We prefer digital readouts that measure things with convenient precision. But life is really more like old-time analog devices: mercury thermometers and clocks with sweep hands — sliding from one exact temperature, time and distance to the next one. Digital measurements convert messy analog imprecision into satisfying (but unreal) certainty. As our culture goes increasingly digital, we risk thinking that life is digital too – a set of clear-cut choices between one certainty and another. In truth, however, life is like chol hamo’ed — a messy mixture.
Rabbinic thinking, generally (not just for chol hamo’ed), recognizes this messiness. Talmudic debate often cites contrary opinions, and then applies them both — not universally, but for different circumstances, because “one size” never “fits all.” In matters of unclarity, it asks, b’mai askinan (“What are we dealing with here?”), a request for the conditions where the rule applies. Rules need not hold universally. Rules regularly conflict. Very few answers apply across the board.
Fanaticism is the faulty assumption that the world is “digital” like our readouts, 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 on principal ought to see that real life demands sometimes one position, sometimes the other, and oftentimes, mixtures of both.
We even picture God (on 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.
The next time you attend an important meeting, watch how people vote. Some of the people sitting around the table will pause reflectively to weigh the issues, and then thoughtfully raise their hand. Others will raise their hand so ferociously that they risk disconnecting their arm from its socket. Here’s a rule of thumb: mental health varies inversely with the ferocity behind the way people throw up their hand to vote.
Life’s serious issues are usually dilemmas: the meeting place of two opposite and potentially valid positions – cases, that is, 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, generally speaking, with at least a little humility.