This past weekend marked the start of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan. It is also a month known as “Mar”-Cheshvan, or “Bitter” Cheshvan. Why is this month bitter? It is not the worst month of the year, Av, in which we mourn the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash (Temple), nor does it have any of the more ‘minor’ fasts, most of which have to do with the Destruction, or with some calamity for the Jewish people. In fact, there are no occasions marked in it at all, which is (one reason) why it is called ‘bitter’. It follows the first month of the year, in which we celebrate Rosh Hashanah-the New Year, Yom Kippur-the Day of Atonement, and the week-long Harvest holiday of Succot, as well as the joyous celebration of completing the annual cycle of reading the Torah. (Yes, the Day of Atonement *is* considered a celebratory holiday, in short because we have a day on which we can be forgiven if we do the work that goes with requesting forgiveness. This is not simple or easy but nonetheless, we are happy because we at least have a chance to wipe the slate clean.)
Some feel a letdown after all these holidays, which may be part of why this month is called bitter. But what occurred to me as we said Hallel (Praise) for this new month was that it is a period of time in which we can just live our lives. No preparing elaborate menus, no buying Chanukah oil and draidels (yet!), no choosing Purim costumes. It is a time to breathe, to Be.
As a teacher, I treasure this time without (hopefully) too many interruptions so we can get some real work done. As a person, I appreciate getting into the routine of everyday life. Yes, we now fill up our time with meetings and appointments, and yes, every day has plenty going on, enough to keep us busy. But if I can sneak a half hour of sitting in the Jerusalem forest and just let myself breathe, I can focus on how thankful I am to have this time in which to look around and appreciate my life, that I have people to care about and spend time with, that I have work, and even that I have housework (and especially that I have family to help me with that). Many people have ongoing difficulties, as I have my own, and tragedies as well; I am not making light of these. They highlight what I sometimes take for granted, which is that many of my problems are manageable, or temporary, even if some aren’t. It is all about where I put my focus.
Yes, terrible things happen. All the time, all over. They have; they do; they are. But we can only do what we can do; even when we are hurting life goes on, and sometimes just living our lives in the moment of peace and quiet is enough to take the bitter out of a month that maybe instead we can call “Shalom” Cheshvan. Shalom means hello, as we greet this new month, and it also means Peace (or go in peace/goodbye). So I am wishing everyone, everywhere, particularly in this time of constant turmoil, a month of peace. I am going to try to appreciate living an ordinary life, and I hope you can, too.