Synagogues are failing in the most subtle of ways. Under the guise of being supportive and loving communities we have made every effort to be there at times when we are needed the most. And, for the most part, we have been successful. We understand sadness, greeting mourners with compassion, visiting friends when they take ill. We also thrive in moments of joy. We dance with wedding couples, and take off from work to attend our neighbor’s son’s bris.
Yet, the problem with these moments is that though they punctuate our lives but do not define them. Much more of our time is spent between peak experiences, not in them. As important as the death of a parent, the birth of child, the loss of a job, or the finding of love is, these are the low hanging fruit of a supportive community. A community that is truly supportive, open, and present, must learn to embrace the mundane alongside the summits and valley of existence.
Lucky for us, we just began the month of Cheshvan. Cheshvan is a rehearsal in honoring the mundane. By containing no holidays, the month is replete with slight highs and subtle lows and it has a tremendous amount to teach us about how we can give honor to experiences that we too often neglect but that nevertheless define our lives, a lesson that most Jewish communities could learn from.
Cheshvan honors the struggle we face during cycles of growth and decay.
In ancient days the month of Cheshvan was called by the name Bul which was understood as a pun by Rashi: fall is time when grass withers (in Hebrew Baleh). Though we know that spring will come and the grass will be renewed, our ancestors chose to honor the fact that every cycle must have a nadir. Cheshvan forces us to ask the question: do we do enough to honor the subtle cycles of our lives: the stress of the accountant in April or the teacher in August, the anxiety our high-school seniors as they work to figure out where they will attend college, the health conditions that tend to flare up from time to time and then go away on their own. Though not nearly as acute as a loss or terminal illness, our Jewish communities need to name these stresses and provide rituals and outlets for those dealing with them.
Cheshvan honors the expected but no less miraculous events of living in the world.
Though we begin to mention rain in our prayers during the holiday of Sukkot, it is not really until Cheshvan that any significant rain starts to fall in Israel. True, the first and last rains of any season are remarkable. They even get their own terminology. The first rain is called Yoreh and the last, Malkosh. Yet rain, is miraculous at any time. It is sustaining, it is life-giving, and it is necessary. Cheshvan is traditionally a time to concentrate on the gift of rain. It is an exercise in mindfulness, noticing that even when it rains for the fifth or sixth time that month that each and every drop is significant. Cheshvan provides a fertile soil to cultivate the practice of acknowledging small blessings: the subtle kindnesses of your neighbor, the beauty of a communal song, the mysterious working of the human body. Cheshvan teaches that Ii we are so busy focusing on the loudest moments of our lives, the quiet blessings will be silenced amidst the noise.
Cheshvan honors the distant losses of long ago that still gnaw at us from time to time.
Historically, the month of Cheshvan has seen its share of loss and heartache. It is traditionally the month when our foremother Rachel died and the time when the Chaldean’s slaughtered King Zadekiah’s sons and led him off in chains to Babylonia (2 Kings 25:7). While some of these losses are distant, they are by no means insignificant. Cheshvan reminds us that even years later, losses in our lives can impact us. It articulates the truth that even at times that are not traditionally set aside for memory (like yahrzeits or holidays) we might still be called to remember. Cheshvan is the picture you forgot and remembered, it is the flashing memory in the supermarket that sneaks up on you.
Cheshvan honors the seeds we plant for the future that give us hope and sustain our souls.
Cheshvan was traditionally a for plowing and planting, a time to turn our attention away from last season’s harvest toward the next season. Cheshvan is a time of great expectation. It is an avenue for our hopes and a platform to dream. It gives us the small joy of envisioning next year’s feast, of conjuring an image of the food that will make future holiday celebrations. Do we do enough to honor the future excitements in our own lives? We mark engagements and honor weddings, but what do we do to acknowledge the anticipation that joins these two events. We understand promotions and job loss, but what about the small victories between: finishing a project, a successful meeting, a good quarter? Cheshvan is a time to acknowledge that the smallest things can also add richness and excitement to our lives.
Cheshvan honors the expectations that we had that were not fulfilled and the challenge of waiting.
According to our tradition, Solomon finished building the Temple, a seven year project, during the month of Cheshvan. Ready to consecrate it, he waited for God’s instruction. Yet, God made him wait twelve months to celebrate until the month of Tishrei. Each year, Cheshvan asks the question: What do we do when our expectations are not met and we are forced to wait. Cheshvan stands beside everyone who has ever experienced the mundanity of waiting and the cycles of failure. It is the infertile couple who must try another month, the single person who is subjected to another bad date, the unemployed neighbor who fails to get another job interview. Solomon needed comfort each month and so do they. Cheshvan reminds us not to forget them.
Good communities are present in moments of deep pain and joy. Powerful and profound communities are ever-present at each moment of our lives. Jewish communities, each Cheshvan should use the month to examine how they deal with the in-between moments. Too many Rabbis, me included, take the month after the High Holy Days to take a much needed breath. Yet, this is precisely the time when we can make in impact on those that need us the most. Every community should take the month of Cheshvan to reaffirm its commitment to the mundane.
Rabbi Marc Katz is the associate Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope.