Jonathan Muskat

Embracing Tension and Celebrating the Good: A Chanukah Message

When I visited my daughter, Leora, in Israel last week, she was telling me how much she is enjoying her year in seminary. At the same time, she was a bit stressed. This year she is studying at the Migdal Oz seminary, and one of the unique features about the seminary is the amount of freedom in making your daily schedule.  In many other seminaries, students select their classes and then they have a program and every slot in the day is filled with a different class. Some of the classes might include a shiur while others might include a combination of chavruta and shiur. However, there is a lot more flexibility in her schedule and she was torn about how to fill a few open slots. And then she expressed concern to me that maybe she was focusing on one subject too many and not on other subjects and was she making the most out of her year in seminary. Life sometimes is much simpler when you have less choice, but I think that her choices will provide her the opportunity to experience tension and then to embrace the tension and celebrate the good in what she choses. And that’s an important life lesson.

I attended a session in the seminary on the issue of whether we as religious Jews should embrace passion or moderation. Do we embrace one characteristic in private and one in public? Do we embrace different characteristics at different stages in life? Should we lead with one characteristic and anchor ourselves with the other characteristic? Different teachers provided different perspectives. One teacher emphasized the fact that we must acknowledge the tension, embrace the tension, and celebrate the good in either value.

The holiday of Chanukah itself is fraught with tension. We celebrate a victory of pious Jews over our enemies who outlawed the practice of Judaism. However, the end of the story is that John Hyrcanus, the son of Simon, one of the Hasmonean brothers who defeated the Syrians in the Chanukah story, began to side with the elitist Hellenistic Sadducean political group. Towards the end of his life and his son, Yannai, was openly hostile and violent towards the Pharisees, the guardians of Torah-true Judaism. Two generations following the miracle of Chanukah, the descendants of the Hasmonean brothers became the type of Hellenized Jews against whom the Hasmoneans fought! We celebrate the commitment and unwavering dedication of Torah principles by our ancestors during this holiday even while understanding the failure of our ancestors to uphold these values shortly after our victory. Here again, we embrace that tension and celebrate the good.

What does it mean to embrace tension and celebrate the good in our lives? It means that we recognize conflicting values in our decision-making, very often in our halachic decision-making, and that not everything is as simple as it seems and we shouldn’t be so quick to judge whether something is correct or not. Unfortunately, I see simplistic thinking a lot in politics where people side with one party over another on every issue instead of siding with different parties depending on the issue and embracing the tension that results from this decision. Embracing tension also means understanding that people are complex and appreciating them for their strengths instead of focusing on a negative quality and defining that person based on that quality.

At the end of the day, embracing tension is so critical as to how we live our lives. There is so much to celebrate about the world, about Jews, and about Orthodox Jews. Just read the papers. And there is so much to complain about the world, about Jews, and about Orthodox Jews. Just read the papers. We as a society do so many things right and unfortunately, we do many things wrong.  However, Chazal tell us to embrace the tension. Chazal tell us that when we experience something good, we should recite a bracha of ha’tov v’ha’meitiv, celebrating the good.  When we experience a tragedy, we should recite a bracha of dayan ha’emet, acknowledging that what happened reflects God’s will.  Embrace the tension and celebrate the good. I hope that my daughter ultimately is satisfied with how she schedules her daily study time. And if she’s not one hundred percent at ease that she made the right choices, even better.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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