William Hamilton

Opposites don’t always have to be oppositional

A cartoon features two dogs sipping martinis. One says to the other, “You know, it’s not good enough that dogs succeed. Cats must also fail.”

Competition and conflict are important parts of life, but not everywhere and not all the time. It’s starting to feel like military metaphors are all we’ve got. Friends need to be reclassified as allies because every position is under siege or at war. But this thought-infection has gone too far. Opposites don’t always have to be oppositional.

Of course, we know the difference between healthy competition on the baseball diamond and the grave consequences at stake in a Jury’s verdict. Still, perhaps it’s time to be reminded that strife is not the only way opposites interact.

Take thoughts and emotions, for example. Just like the spiritual and the material, or the arts and the sciences, these things have no interest in devouring each other. A more suitable metaphor of the human body comes to mind. When our organs and systems are functioning well, a kidney isn’t competing against a lung. Their differences are vast and still they depend upon each other.

On an ordinary Saturday night, Havdalah reminds us that things like Shabbat and the six workdays, our people’s particularity and humankind’s universality, as well as light and darkness, are not struggling to defeat each other. This weekend we will transition, as we did last weekend, from Shabbat into the Festival of Passover with a special Havdalah. The unique form of the prayer contained in the Festival evening service, which dates back to the Talmud (Brachot 33b), evokes distinctions that are more subtle, with the holiness of Shabbat shading into the holiness of Passover’s final day. Whether opposing forces are dramatic or nuanced, the capacity to hold them in tension, to live with and promote competing priorities, is what makes us human and propels us forward. Breakthroughs of excellence aren’t typically forged from equilibrium’s quiet stillness.

To be clear, sometimes conflicts matter mightily. The battle against wickedness, against evil’s dangers, always needs to be waged and won.

A final bit of good news. We’ve created conflict in settings where it doesn’t belong, where it feels counterfeit. So, we can uncreate it too. May the opening of flowerbeds this season remind us that natural harmony also has an important share in our lives.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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