Every year, I do my best to engage with the process of teshuvah (repentance) during the High Holidays. A few weeks ago, I made resolutions, asked for and received forgiveness, cast away my sins, felt spiritually renewed…and then the craziness of the year began, as it does each year: right now, my partner and I are settling into our new apartment and unpacking boxes. I am starting new jobs while getting acquainted with a new city. Despite my best intentions, I’ve lost sight of the higher self with whom I am trying to align. Like many of us, I am overwhelmed with the business of life at this time of year.
At the end of this week, we enter the month of Marcheshvan, most notable for its lack of holidays. And last week, at the end of Sukkot, Jewish communities around the world began to add the words to the Amidah that we will say until Passover: mashiv ha’ruach u’morid ha’gashem (“the One who causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall”).
Why do we say this as we enter Marcheshvan?
According to the 12th century commentator, Rashi (in his comment on Lev 25:21) the ancient Israelites would “sow…in Marcheshvan, and reap in Nisan.” Planting seeds at this time could be precarious: Marcheshvan’s ancient name, Bul, suggests it was capable of bringing both floods, and raindrops (from Mar-). The story of Noah’s flood that we read this week expresses our anxiety that the small and fragile seeds we plant, whether physical or spiritual, will be washed away by disaster. In our own lives, the intentions we sow need a special kind of nourishment.
A Hasidic teaching from the Alter Rebbe explains that water, the essential ingredient for life, is an expression of Divine love. Rain is life-giving, and the slow downpour of water sustains the world – whereas a flood of water overwhelms us and is destructive. After the holiday season and the intimate moments with God it hopefully brought, we ready ourselves for the long period until Hannukah by praying that God hold back the flood, showering us instead with the divine “rain” we need in order to continue to nourish the seeds of the highest intentions that we sowed during the High Holidays.
As we emerge from the aseret y’mei ha’t’shuvah (“the 10 days of repentance”), we pray for the capacity to integrate the insights we received during this time into the everyday. During the onslaught of the ordinary, it is all too easy to succumb to old habits. But as we enter Marcheshvan we are invited to consider how to more mindfully re-enter the day-to-day business of our own lives. This month gives us the space we need to bring the resolutions we made during the “high” of these holidays into our everyday functioning. And during this time, along with our ancestors, we ask for the blessing of steady rains to nourish the seeds we have planted.
Whether it is recommitting to a regular spiritual practice, to deepening our learning, or to nourishing our creativity, only we know what nourishment and love will help the seeds of our intentions break open and take root in the ground of our daily lives. Through careful tending, when the time arrives to stop praying for rain at the beginning of Passover, we will be able to reap the fruits of our labor and truly taste our freedom.
With the intensity of our Fall Holy Days behind us, we find ourselves now in the month of Cheshvan. Known as Mar Cheshvan, or “bitter Cheshvan,” it is the only month on our calendar devoid of festivals or fast days. And it is for that reason that many have assumed it was given its alternate name.
Yet, exploration into the etymology of the word Cheshvan presents a shocking discovery; we have been mispronouncing the name. The names of our Hebrew months were derived from their Babylonian counterparts. Given that we were in Babylonia at the time our calendar was codified, it makes perfect sense. With Nissan being the head of the liturgical calendar, the month in question is the eighth month. Because in Akkadian, the language of the day, the “w” (vav) and “m” (mem) sounds can interchange, we see that Marcheshvan which is from the two words “m’rach” and “shvan,” would have been “warh” and “shman,” in Akkadian, corresponding to the Hebrew “yerech shmi- ni,” thus “eighth month.” Ashkenazic tradition incorrectly places a break in the name, “Mar-cheshvan.” Our Yemenite coreligionists have retained greater accuracy in their pronunciation “Marach- sha’wan.” Furthermore, Rashi (11th century, France), the Rambam (12th century, Spain, Egypt), and Ibn Ezra (11th century, Iberian Peninsula) all use the complete name, indicating the longer name as the known name.
And yet historical “truth” ought not invalidate the wisdom that might lurk within the folds of folk etymology. For a certain Cheshvan seventeen years ago turned bitter when the Israeli Prime Minister was murdered at the hands of a fellow Jew.
As my hand reached for the handle, the front door swung open . My father’s face was ashen as he met me at the door to deliver the horrific news, praying that I had not been listening to the radio. Yitzchak Rabin, z”l had been assassinated at a peace rally in Tel Aviv. Moments before his murder, he stood on the dais and, with pop star, Miri Aloni, sang these words:
“…So just sing a song for peace, don’t whisper a prayer; Just sing a song for peace, in a loud shout…”
And then, with seemingly-prophetic words still in his coat pocket, the assassin’s bullet tore through him and stole him from us.
The twelfth of Cheshvan. Set aside to celebrate my engagement to Warren with family and friends. What should have been one of the happiest nights of my life was marred by this terrible tragedy. Such an awful, awful night. For me and my family, it was surreal as we numbly maneuvered through a group of oblivious party-goers. The unrequited joy of the evening forever intertwined with a horrific reality.
And though peace seems less possible today than it did seventeen years ago, somehow we must continue to sing and to shout for that peace…
Perhaps there will come a day when the bitterness of this month will be no more. Until then, we pray and we hope and we find ways to bring sweetness to this world.
Keyn y’hi ratzon — May this be God’s Will.
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