Ah, Cheshvan! Is it just me who welcomes the quiet of the weeks that lie ahead of us? Am I alone in looking forward to the serenity of not having to meal plan, shop, cook, set up for, and then clean up from what feels like a thousand Yom Tov meals, all while trying to coax my 7 year old down from swinging on the chandelier, spend quality time with my older kids, find a moment to speak to my husband, go to shul, daven with kavana, and focus on my spiritual growth??
Please don’t misunderstand me—I love the Yamim Tovim, really, I do! The entire process we go through from Rosh HaShana to Yom Kippur, leading into Sukkos and Shemini Atzeres/Simchas Torah, resonates very deeply with me. In fact, I think that it’s this process that makes me appreciate Cheshvan so much more. The chagim at this time of year are inspiring in their intensity, affirming in their forgiveness, and beautiful in their joy, but they can also be overwhelming in their responsibility, frightening in their judgement, and exhausting in their excitement. I may sound like a Debbie Downer, but I’m just calling it like I see it: The Days of Awe were awesome, but I’m kind of glad they’re done so that I can actually do something about them now.
The monotony of MarCheshvan—presumably so-called because of it being the only month on the Jewish calendar that is totally devoid of any holidays or fast days, which makes it mar (bitter)—affords us the time and headspace to develop the feelings that were stirred up over the holidays into cogent thoughts which we can then begin to implement through actions.
(Tangentially, while the bitterness explanation for the name MarCheshvan is probably the most widely known, it’s also interesting to note some other meanings, as well as other names of the month. Mar is the honorific form of “Master” and Cheshvan is addressed by this title because the first Beis HaMikdash was completed in this month. Mar also refers to a drop, because it is the beginning of the rainy season, as well as the month in which the rains of the Mabul at the time of Noach began to fall. Not coincidentally, the rain waters receded enough for Noach and his family to be able to exit the teiva in Cheshvan as well, only a year later. In the Tanach, Cheshvan is called “Yerach Bul” and different commentators connect this name to the Mabul as well.)
One of the best classes I ever heard on the topic of Sukkos was Chevi Garfinkle’s masterpiece on Sukkos, Simcha, and Bitachon, which you can find on torahanytime.com. (It is worth the listen no matter what time of year it is.) I won’t go into all the details because she said it better than I ever could, but she speaks about how Simchas Beis HaShoeva should teach us about honoring the process, not just focusing on results. As she so succinctly puts it, it’s not just about the outcome; it’s about how you come out. Cheshvan—which leads into the long winter months—is all about process, growth, and development, even with no specific goal in sight. We don’t work towards a holiday, we don’t even have a fast day to help us refocus, rather, we dig down and start doing the work it takes to become our best selves—the ones we conceived of and committed to becoming over Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, the ones we felt like we were when we celebrated on Sukkos, Shemini Atzeres, and Simchas Torah.
When the holidays are over, the introspection and celebration give way to regular life, and we’re not working toward justifying our lives to Hashem anymore or celebrating the fact that we made it. Y’know how it’s easier to be motivated to lose weight when you have an event coming up and you need to wear that dress that is just 10 pounds shy of fitting, and yet when it’s not for any specific reason, you can’t seem to eat healthy or exercise with quite the same enthusiasm? It’s easier to work on ourselves at a time like Elul and Tishrei, when the season is ripe, and the High Holidays are coming. We know it makes a world of difference then, but that can seem to fade into the rear-view mirror pretty quickly afterwards.
When we appreciate how important the process is—regardless of a specific goal—we can realize that now, the month of Cheshvan, and the winter season in general, is the time to commit to our spiritual growth—not because we’re trying to save our necks, but because we know it’s what is best for our overall spiritual health.
So, what’s the process, then? What path can we travel over the next few months to help us take the inspiration of the past holiday season and use it to grow?
To be sure, there are many approaches, and I’m going to suggest just one that I’ve been working with. This “system” has helped me gain perspective and has guided my actions and reactions in some very difficult situations. I feel more centered and more positive, like I am progressing as a person when I do this, and so, I wanted to share it with you. It was inspired by something I learned from Aliza Bulow, one of the most learned women I know. She taught that the Jewish nation has four different names that represent four different characteristics we posses as a people. I’m working on applying at least one of these characteristics to the way I deal with absolutely everything in my life.
First, as we learn from Avraham Avinu, we are Ivrim. Though this does mean “Hebrews”, it is also connected to the Hebrew mei eiver, from—or on—the other side. Avraham was able to stand alone on the other side of what was popular at that time in history. With his knowledge of Hashem, he possessed a certain confidence that allowed him to follow his faith no matter where it led him.
Whenever I find myself in a situation that feels lonely, unpopular, or unsure, I try to determine if this is an Ivri moment—a moment when I need to be able to stand confidently on the other side of something—whether it’s political, social, religious, or even a family issue with my kids or husband. Of course, to be able to know if it’s an Ivri moment, one first has to really listen to the other viewpoint, understand it, and asses its validity, but if after all that, you’re still on the other side, stand firmly, like Avraham Avinu.
Next, we are B’nai Yisrael. When Yaakov Avinu struggled all night long with the Malach of Eisav and then defeated him, the Malach gave Yaakov the new name “Yisrael” which immortalized the struggle, not the victory.
There are times in our lives when we struggle. Sometimes, we struggle all night long (and that night could be a month, or a year, or a decade). In those moments, we need to gird ourselves with the knowledge that not only do we have it in our spiritual DNA to fight, it is the fight—as Chevi Garfinkle describes, “the struggle to be meaningfully engaged in the process of living”—that makes Hashem so proud of us. There are times I find myself saying, “I just can’t deal with this!”, but truth be told, I can; I just don’t want to.
As a Bas Yisrael, each of us is a warrior princess. Though we may not always want to (trust me, I’m right there with you!), we need to know that we have it in us to keep going. Like any good fighter, it’s important to take moments to go back into your corner, splash some water on your face, tend to your wounds, and listen to your coaches and fans as they give you pointers and cheer you on—but then get back in the ring and keep fighting. Resilience and perseverance are an interdependent means and ends. We can only become resilient by persevering through the challenges Hashem presents us with. Cheshvan, without a specific “goal” to work towards or enjoy, epitomizes this concept: effort and growth for the sake of effort and growth. The struggle—the process—is real but we can do this!
Perhaps our most well-known moniker is Yehudim. This comes from the name Yehudah, Yaakov Avinu’s fourth son and one of the 12 Shvatim. His mother, Leah, chose this name to give hod’ah, “thanks”, to Hashem for having been blessed with yet another child. As Yehudim, we are a people of gratitude.
This characteristic can be applied in pretty much any situation. It may seem intuitive to be grateful when something good happens, but I have discovered that gratitude can be found even (if not more so) in challenging situations (and I’m sure others can attest to this as well). I have deep gratitude for things being no worse than they are. I have so much hakaras hatov for how much brighter the sunshine seems after the darkness of a storm. I appreciate the fact that I value the little things more after some of the big things have been called into question. I am grateful that sometimes I can stand on the other side, and that I am able to find the strength to struggle.
Lastly, the Jewish people are also called B’nai Yeshurun. This name refers to us as the “upright” people—the ones who are always looking to do the right thing, even when it’s hard. Seeking to do the right thing in every situation should be a given, but I’ll be honest, there are times when I’m tempted to do what’s easy, and not necessarily what’s right. I’m not saying that I opt for doing what’s wrong—it’s just not always a binary choice. Not that we would ever aim to travel the low road, but sometimes, we don’t reach for the high road and end up taking the one in the middle.
Trying to apply this characteristic tends to bring the previously mentioned ones in as well, because it can be a struggle to find—or choose to do—the right thing, and it isn’t always the popular thing that others are doing. Gratitude for the opportunity to make the best choice, to develop ourselves just a little bit more into the upright people we know we’re meant to be, is also a natural byproduct of this. It really is the whole package.
As we round out the month of Cheshvan and begin the long winter season, we can choose to see it as interminable, dreary, and empty. On the other hand, we can choose to see it as brimming with potential because of the space it allows for us to sink into the process of living a meaningful life. Each day that passes, with its regular routine and familiar chaos of the everyday, presents us with choices: Do I stand on the other side of the popular opinion on this issue and express my Ivriness? Am I struggling hard and long enough, while still taking the time for self-care, like the glorious Bas Yisrael I am? Have I taken the time to find the good, even in the hard, and be grateful for it, as a Yehudi(s) should be? What is the upright thing to do in this specific situation that will allow me to hold my head up as a Bas Yeshurun? The thought and effort we put into these choices alone will help us develop and grow (even if we don’t always come to the “right” decision), one situation at a time. Remember: it’s not just about the outcome, it’s about how we come out—and I know we’re going to come out great!