In my New Jersey day school’s 5th grade religious studies class, Rabbi W. always kept our attention, mostly through an energized flow of bible stories, games around the Hebrew language, and dramatic excursions into Jewish history and culture. It was the late 1950s, so a gentle zetz to the shoulder during a student’s reverie also induced attention.
Since second grade, we had been given an exercise to identify each new Jewish month and tell about it. That 5th grade year, when Tishrei ended in October, we confidently answered Cheshvan.
Rabbi W. told us we were partially correct. The full name of the month, he amended, was Marcheshvan, bitter Cheshvan (think maror on Pesach). Rabbi W. gave us two explanations.
First, the child version. Anthropomorphized, Cheshvan felt bitter for being the only month that had no Jewish holiday.
Second, people are often bitter after the Yom Tovim because with all the New Year vows, we’re frustrated not being able to follow through and become angry with ourselves and those around us. But when Kislev comes with the miracle of Chanukah, we start lifting ourselves up.
Back then I had no cogent understanding of Rabbi W.’s second explanation. I do now. As of October 19, we begin the month of (Mar)cheshvan, and the bitterness tag unfortunately fits much too well. For that matter, regardless of the month’s boundaries, bitterness, locust-like, has swept across the United States devouring comity, friendship, and united purpose, both national and within our Jewish community. I believe most people will find no surprise or argument with my assessment nor the following examples.
Our emphasis on lashon hara, speech that debases another person, has greatly waned. My school years educators ceaselessly reminded us that speaking ill of others was a bane of Jewish existence, destructive both to the target of the assault and to the assailant. Later, I would invariably find adult education offerings and discussion groups on lashon hara. It was a mainstay of rabbinical sermons and b’nai mitzvah talks. But no longer.
Bitterness has spawned hypocrisy, and promoting civil discourse may be one dissimulation too far. Take a look at the letters to the editor and op-ed sections of your favorite Jewish weekly. They often contain broadsides, not about policy disagreements or flawed logic, but rather bitter, ad hominem recriminations aimed at differing voices and other letter writers. Bitterness commonly becomes hatred, and hatred strips away reason and sensitivity so Jews are hurling chilling, misappropriated accusations of Nazis, storm troopers, collaborators, and kapos against each other.
We bitterly rationalize our righteousness by claiming, “we are at war, so all’s fair.” Or “She started it, she called me a name first, so there.” How easily what we learned so well in kindergarten becomes unraveled over a period of bitter self-indulgence.
Our synagogues, where the old joke of “ask two Jew and get three opinions” found acceptance and vitality, now harbor not only the clash of viewpoints, but the bitter repudiation by a majority of minority others, expressed as “if you don’t agree with us, well you don’t belong here.”
Friendships have frayed to the tearing point. The bile of bitter disagreement that corrodes respect for other opinions also eats away at affection, camaraderie, and mutuality of greater purpose. Conversations have become impatient, humorless, goading, and accusatory. For friends holding opposing political perspectives, social distancing had preceded COVID-19 with some relationships allowed to dissolve as staying friends is experienced as too sapping. It’s just seems easier to be with the people with whom we agree.
The extent to which Cheshvan and all other months have been marred is so pervasive that there is probably no top down prescription or intervention for eradication of the spread. Any hope lies in bottom up responsiveness to the Jewish spark of decency within each of us as we join with others to become the flame that perhaps can light perspective to ameliorate the bitterness.
For instance, living in the United States, I look at November 3, the 16th of (Mar)Cheshvan, as an opportunity for me to come together with my fellow Americans to partake in our great tradition of voting. If my candidate does not win, I will look for areas of agreement. When I disagree, I will resolve to be the loyal and constructive opposition and not devolve into the destructive bitterness of unyielding resistance.
And 10 days after the end of (Mar)Cheshvan, on Thursday, November 26, I have a day on which to strip away, even momentarily, the bitterness of the times by looking back at all the preceding months and years in thanksgiving and joy for being a Jewish American proud to be a citizen of a great democracy and having Israel as my spiritual homeland.
Thus, through our individualized efforts, I hope in the non-distant future, Cheshvan will feel better in the remission of at least some of its bitterness.