In Praise of Cheshvan
October ’21 / Cheshvan ‘82
Rabbi Joshua Boettiger, CCM Associate Rosh Yeshiva
After the pageantry of the month of Tishrei (when the High Holy Days take place), many note that the month of Cheshvan, which has no holidays in it, seems bitter in comparison. Apart from rabbis, chazzans, and other Jewish professionals who tend to welcome the down-time, Cheshvan is thought of as nothing special, if indeed it is thought of at all.
I want to make the suggestion, however, that an elevation of Cheshvan might be exactly what Judaism needs. Even though this sounds heretical, the High Holy Days can be a distraction. Sure, there is something to be said for the prods to change our behavior that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur give us, and definitely for the coming together as a people that they necessitate. But with all their grandeur and drama, they also create a sense of outsized expectation. At its best, the liturgy of the Days of Awe works to strip down the defenses of the ego, but for many of us, it also creates a general mood of self-abasement. And as any Mussar practitioner knows, self-abasement is just another form of self-absorption.
Cheshvan, on the other hand, makes no promises. There’s no bells or whistles, no climactic metaphors. Cheshvan is like a meditation retreat in its monotony. Sit, walk, sit, walk, sit, eat, sit again. There’s nowhere else to go, there’s nothing to look forward to. The Buddhists might call Cheshvan the wisdom of no escape. It’s just our life in an unadorned form. Our life as it is – with our daily thoughts and projections, with our daily responsibilities and relationships.
Cheshvan does present one obstacle, however. It would be easy for us to use this month to rediscover our love of Shabbat. Resist this! I say that only partially with a wink. There was a wise Rav at a yeshiva I used to study at in Israel who wasn’t given to small talk. If you were alone in an elevator with him, eventually he would break the silence by saying, “Well, only three days till Shabbat.” At the time, I thought this was the most profound thing, and part of me still does. Another part though, wishes in the elevator long ago, to have had the chutzpah to ask, “But what about now? This moment, this elevator ride?” Shabbat is also a distraction in this respect – it defers something, it kicks the can further down the road. It’s as if we’re saying, today is alright, but I really can’t wait for what’s coming at the end of the week.
It’s said that the messiah is here, just waiting for us to notice. Cheshvan gives us the space and time to do this, because we are not too busy striking our chests and making grand pronouncements to notice. Of course, the inner work and the teshuvah don’t stop in Cheshvan. But they happen in a different context – no vague promises about changing in the year ahead. Instead – who is before me right now? What story am I telling that is keeping me from seeing them? What does my day look like and how can I work within this day to become more aware and responsive to the needs of others?
In the kiddush levana ritual, the sanctification of the new moon – in this case, of Cheshvan – we say in the traditional liturgy: “And G-d said to the moon, ‘Renew yourself!’ A crown of beauty to those who are carried in the womb, who are destined to renew themselves like her.” May it be so, may there be renewal for each of us in this holy month ahead.