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In Praise of Nothing

After a month filled to the brim with ritual observance, the Hebrew month of Heshvan invites us to holy stillness.

In a few days we’ll leave behind the holiday-rich month of Tishrei –– the month of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Sukkot, of introspection and renewal, of harvest celebrations and beginning anew the yearly cycle of Torah readings — and enter the month of Heshvan.

Tishrei takes up 56 pages in my copy of Luaḥ Hashanah, a daily guidebook to practices and liturgies and Torah readings for each month of the Hebrew calendar. Heshvan fills just four. Ḥesssshhhhvaaaaan. The word itself almost breathes, like a sigh of relief.

There’s some dispute over the actual name of the month. You may have heard it referred to as Mar Heshvan, which can be translated in a number of ways. “Bitter Heshvan” — bitter because it’s bereft of special holy days. Or alternatively, “Mister Heshvan,” honored as the month in which the ancients began to pray for life-giving rains in the land of Israel. Or “Drop of Heshvan,” because it’s the month in which those rains begin to fall. It’s also known simply as Bul, a Canaanite moon god whose name is linked to the Hebrew word for flood (mabul), which recalls the great flood (said to have begun in this month) that swept away all life on Earth, save for those afloat in the ark with Noah.

In the Talmud, though, the month is referred to as Marheshvan, a single word, which scholars tell us comes from two Akkadian words: warh shman (in Hebrew, pronounced “m’rach shvan”) meaning simply, “eighth month.”

Seven, in Jewish tradition, is the number of creation — seven days of creation of the world, culminating in Shabbat; seven weeks of the Omer, the period following the Exodus that retooled a ragtag bunch of Israelite slaves into a covenanted people; the seven-year shmita cycle, ending with a year of rest for the land, relinquishing the rush to produce and the compulsion to own so that the balance of creation might be restored.

Tishrei, the seventh month, commemorates the divine act of creation and the ever-present possibility of recreating ourselves, of revisioning our lives and renewing our resolve to work toward a just, equitable, and livable planet through teshuvah (return or repentance) and tzedakah (charity).

But eight — ah, eight! Turned sideways, eight becomes an infinity sign, transporting us beyond creation, beyond materiality, into a realm of mystery and infinite possibilities. Marheshvan, the eighth month, invites us into the amorphous unknown, a cosmic expansiveness and subatomic spaciousness where change is constant, instantaneous and effortless.

Eight taps us into a knowing beyond comprehension––what the spiritual teacher Isaac Shapiro describes as “a vast intelligence that is manifesting as everything,” a great cosmic hum that, if we can tune into it, attests to the unity and sanctity of all existence, making it impossible to possess and unthinkable to desecrate.

Shapiro calls this seeming emptiness at the core of every atom “the mother of everything.” The cosmologist Brian Swimme calls it “the all-nurturing abyss.” The Jewish mystics call it simply Ein Sof (“Without End”) or Ayin (“Nothing”).

This is the space that Rabbi Sharon Brous referred to in her Rosh Hashanah sermon this year — the moment of stillness that stays Abraham’s hand at the very moment he lifts his knife to slaughter his son, Isaac. This tiny quantity of Ayin restores a father’s sanity and allows for his teshuvah, his turning. Spying a ram caught in a thicket, he offers it up in his son’s stead.

Rabbi Brous describes such a lacuna as a time of “reordering of our inner world,” a kind of “discernment practice that’s not only a spiritual necessity, but a moral one.” In that space, one may be able to hear kol d’mamma dakka, a thin, murmuring sound that pulls us back from the brink of insanity, a voice that pulls us toward love.

Ayin is not empty. Rather, it is full of an indescribable something that we can only address in paltry metaphors, but which we can sometimes get a taste of in silence, during our Shabbats and our shmitas and our moments of meditation — something like great waves of compassion rippling through an endless sea of being, accompanied by the knowing that we cannot fall out of connection.

The eighth month, with its dearth of ritual observances, invites us to this holy stillness, to rest in timeless time, rocking in the great sea of Ayin, and to weave into our everyday lives this seeming emptiness, which in some mysterious way holds the potential for true change.

After the great exhale of Tishrei, the outpouring of prayer and teaching and song carrying the yearnings and dreams of millions of Jews around the globe, how will you give yourself the gift of Marheshvan, inhaling the emptiness that nurtures, steeping in the stillness from which a deeper, truer voice may arise? How will you receive the blessed nothing of the eighth month?

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on Oct. 2, 2021. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.

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