Change Agents in Paradox
Jews are good at paradox. From a young age, we are both taught to be able to live with joy in the celebration of life, and the challenge of what it means to live as a Jewish person imbibed with the painful history of our people. Most of our holidays ask us to hold both triumph and tragedy together in one celebration — from Purim, to Pesach, to Hannukah, we are asked throughout the year to hold the stories of thousands of lives lost, while at the same time praising the mighty, the few, and the strong who perpetuated our survival. This paradox we live in, as Carl Jung would say, acts as a great witness to the truth — it comprehends the fullness of life, which is sometimes beautiful and sometimes terrible. On Hanukkah each year, we envelop ourselves in the narrative of miracle, of lights shooing away darkness, and the small beating out the mighty, when in reality, those were instances of joy juxtaposed with tremendous pain.
In describing the mitzvot connected with Hanukkah, the Talmud explores the definition of miracle — often declaring that since all were present at the time, all are obligated to observe. As part of this celebration, we tell the story of what we are celebrating, and we perform rituals in which we commemorate and celebrate. When it comes to Hanukkah, these often involve fire, oil, and much delicious food. There is an immense amount of joy in Hanukkah — it is often a favorite holiday of children due to its less restrictive nature in terms of observance, and more opportunities for communal gatherings.
In Megillah 18a, The Sages are in a heated debate about whether or not one must understand the word of the Megillah in order to fulfill the Mitzvah of Megillah by hearing it. The Mishnah says — yes. The Talmud raises a difficulty on this — how can one fulfill one’s obligation without even understanding what he is hearing? What meaning is there to such an act? How can one celebrate a miracle without fully holding it in its entirety? One of the answers is, that’s just the way it is! Ravina, a 5th generation Amora, finds difficulty with this since there are words in the Megillah that even Hebrew speakers would not understand. From the presence of these words, Ravina concludes that in general reading the Megillah is not in order to understand it. It is a ritual act that one must “perform” with or without understanding. Its purpose is to “proclaim the miracle” just like the lighting of the Hanukkah candles. Therefore, there is no need to actually understand the words. In two of our story-heavy holidays, Purim and Hanukkah, the actual understanding of the miracle is not actually necessary for the performance of the ritual. The celebration is a paradox — we survived, and yet we don’t necessarily need to know what it is we survived in order to celebrate. Were I to comment, I might ask — shall we not spend a moment in the pain that is rooted in our stories, and bloom from its understanding?
We live in a pandemic time. While many would rather refer to it in the past tense, or use the term “post-COVID”, the reality is that this fire still burns brightly for most of the globe. Even in the parts of the United States where vaccination rates are high, and people still wear masks while walking outside, parents of preschoolers shudder at unwelcome sneezing from their children. We are in a race against the clock, against an invisible virus, and against ourselves- but there is no medal at the end of this race. No one will be waiting for us when it is truly “post-COVID” with a heat sheet and a bag of pretzels. Rather, we will be left with the deep wounds of millions of people taken from their lives, entire communities ravaged by housing insecurity, unemployment, and socioeconomic devastation, and the lingering trauma that we have yet to understand. Yet, we really only want to read the hopeful stories — the ones that say case numbers are down, that vaccinated folks only have mild symptoms, and that international travel is open once again. Those who dare write about the suffering that is rooting itself in the narratives of our children’s lives — and our lives — face being the target of a polemic response. Still — while my three year old son runs away at the sight of a Q-tip, he understands why the momentary discomfort is necessary to keep our community safe. He — at such a young age — can hold the paradox of “this hurts, and I know why it is good.”
The suffering of our time is not hyperbole, it is fact. We know from our own history that the more we silence the pain, the more we are likely to suffer its consequences in the future. Yet — we do know how to hold pain together with joy, we do it every year, several times a year! So much growth can come from also sitting with the pain, the loss, and the grief. We teach our children to look at the silver that ligns pain, when in reality, being able to sit with what is hard is how we get through to growth, evolution, and real change. When we teach our children that these miracles are diamonds in deep muddy waters of painful history, we teach them that they can get through hard times, that they can do hard things, and that they can become growth agents, and solution makers. If we can sit with what is hard, we can truly celebrate what is miraculous.