CHESHVAN: THE JEWISH MONTH LIKE NO OTHER
By Rebecca Reice
I have a deep admiration for the genius of the Jewish calendar, especially at this time of year. Back in Elul, which corresponded to the month of September this year, Jews around the world added two longstanding traditions to their everyday spiritual practice: blowing the shofar and reciting Psalm 27. These two ancient customs seem directed at each person’s heart, encouraging us to begin the work of teshuvah, of turning and repentance. Giving us 29 days to make apologies and forgive each other, before Rosh HaShanah arrives on the first day of the next month of Tishrei.
Tishrei is packed with Holy Days and Festivals. Rosh HaShanah starts the month with the celebration of the creation of the world and placing our focus on God as Ruler of that world. It initiates the Yamim No’raim, the 10 Days of Awe, during which Jews tried to finish their teshuvah and settle their affairs in order to start the year with a “clean slate.” Then Yom Kippur arrives as both the pinnacle of the work from Elul and the Days of Awe and its conclusion. Traditionally, as soon as Yom Kippur is over, Jews begin to build their sukkot, temporary booths, decorated for the next festival. The Festival of Sukkot arrives just five days later and is called “the time of our joy.” Having concluded all of the soul searching, chest beating, and hard work, we transition into eight days of partying. The “time of our joy” culminates in Simchat Torah, dancing and celebrating with the Torah, as we conclude Deuteronomy and start all over again with Genesis. It is quite the roller coaster ride, and also a marathon. Beginning with two days of Rosh HaShanah and including Shabbat, 15 of the 30 days of the month are set aside for special worship, celebration, or fasting. If a Jew were to observe every single one of these days, he or she might be partied out by the end of the month, or at least, a bit tired of going to synagogue.
A week after Simchat Torah, the month of Cheshvan begins. Cheshvan stands out on the Jewish calendar as the only month with no feast days or fast days, no special psalms nor shofar blowing, no seder nor omer counting. For this reason, it earned the nickname of Mar Cheshvan, bitter Cheshvan. Yet, I have never found the lack of festivity in Cheshvan to be bitter. It is true that Cheshvan is quiet in comparison to the busy days of Tishrei and it does not light up the gradually longer and longer darkness with beautiful lights like the Chanukah candles of the month to come. However, in its silence, Cheshvan presents a tremendous opportunity.
Cheshvan is the month that responds to the rush of Tishrei with time, time to fulfill the commitments we made during the Days of Awe, time to start becoming the people we want to be the next time the High Holy Days arrive. In fact, one group saw Cheshvan as an opportunity for the global Jewish community to do exactly that – change themselves and the world for the better. If you visit http://www.cheshvan.org/, you will find the home of Jewish Social Action Month (JSAM), supported by organizations and individuals around the world: from my school, Hebrew Union College to Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the UK, to the President and former Prime Minister of Israel to individual congregations around the world. The website is full of events to participate in to do the work of tikkun olam, repairing the world, around the world; as well as ideas for starting your own events or making meaningful changes in your own life. So, whether you choose to use Cheshvan as your time to get started on your personal improvement or improvement of the world with JSAM, I invite you to sweeten its bitter reputation.