Word of the Month: What’s so bitter about Cheshvan?

D’var Torah
Cantor Sharon Hordes

Cantor Sharon Hordes

It’s not unusual to see rabbis, cantors and synagogue administrators joke about how we are in their favorite month right now … Marcheshvan or “Bitter Cheshvan,” the month devoid of any holidays.
What’s bitter about a month that gives busy, stressed-out professional Jews a four-week break from having to master challenging music, write sermons or simply summon up the energy to stand before their congregations, imparting wisdom and inspiration?
In Judaism, it seems as though we are always focused on the next special day on our calendar, even if it’s a mournful fast day. But according to the Kabbalah, every significant day affords us the opportunity to come closer to God, either in joy or in sadness.
Therefore we refer to the month that we’re in now, the only month in the Jewish calendar without any type of holiday, as Marcheshvan.
But what about the month of Av, the month with the day we mourn for the destruction of both holy temples, as well as the other tragedies that befell our people on that month throughout history? Shouldn’t we refer to it as bitter?
The kabbalists teach us that even on a day as sad as the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av), we are granted 24 hours to take a break from the mundane activities of our world, focus on empathy for those who are suffering as our ancestors did, and look inside ourselves to become better people.
What can we focus on during this month in the absence of a holiday or public fast day? According to Kabbalah student and psychotherapist Melinda Ribbner, Cheshvan is a time to start working on those personal challenges we vowed to improve upon during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
In her book, Kabbalah Month by Month, Ribbner writes, “if we celebrated the holidays of Tishrei in their true spirit and depth, we have opened and received many blessings. We have been inspired to make changes in ourselves and in our lives.” Ribbner acknowledges that changing course in our lives can be difficult and that we may be tempted to give up. There’s a reason why New Year’s resolutions barely survive their first few weeks. But she reminds us that when our resistance to change kicks in, we need to “contact the even deeper resolve of the soul to go forward in our lives, even if it is painful and difficult.”
The time to do this work is when we don’t have any other holidays to distract us. As Ribbner writes, “When we recognize that there is no escape, nowhere to run, there are not even any holidays to help us transcend, we will settle down to do the work of this month. This is the spiritual opportunity and challenge of this month.”
If we truly do the work of Cheshvan, it may prove to be even more difficult than the soul-purifying, repentance-seeking efforts of Tishrei, but the rewards that come with this sense of accomplishment – this personal growth – are well worth it.
With that in mind, ask yourselves this question: What will be my self-improvement project this month and what do I need to finally let go of for it to happen?

(Cantor Sharon Hordes is the hazzan of Keneseth Israel Congregation.)

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