Not letting bitterness mar our souls

(my d’rash for tonight…)

Each month on the Hebrew calendar contains at least one holiday – except Cheshvan, the month we are entering with this Rosh Chodesh. The month is formally called “Mar Cheshvan,” usually interpreted as “Bitter Cheshvan” (think maror). The month is bitter, the explanation goes, because it has no celebratory days. The bitterness must especially sting since Cheshvan follows Tishrei, which is filled with the holiday smorgasbord: Rosh HaShanah, the Yamim Noraim, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah.

But there’s another interpretation of “Mar Cheshvan” which I heard as a child. “Mar” doesn’t just mean “bitter,” it’s also the Hebrew word for “Mister.” In this interpretation, “Mar” is an honorific, a title bestowed upon “Mr. Cheshvan” to remind the month – and ourselves – that we value it as much as any other month, and that it doesn’t need holidays to be important.

Mar Cheshvan is breathing room, a chance to catch our breath after the whirlwind of chagim we’ve experienced. It’s the pause between the notes in the orchestration of our lives. Mar Cheshvan offers a moment to reflect: have we started the year the way we want? Have we set the proper tone for the months to come? Tishrei is pomp and circumstance, dress-up and heightened reality. Mar Cheshvan is real life, every day-ness, who we are rather than who we’re trying to present to the world.

In Malachim Alef, First Kings, we read of Eliyahu’s encounter with G-d when G-d calls him to “Come out…and stand on the mountain before G-d.” There was a mighty wind – but G-d was not in the wind; then an earthquake, but G-d was not in the earthquake; then a fire, but G-d was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still, small voice. G-d doesn’t need fiery, dramatic moments; G-d is there in the still, small voice, in the quiet moment after the storm, in the Cheshvan after Tishrei.

In 1998, I lost three of my grandparents in a span of seven months. First, my Grandpa died just before Pesach; then my Nana, over the summer; and finally my Grandma, on the 30th of Tishrei, so her yahrtzeit was last night and today. Both my parents were very close to their in-laws as well as to their own parents, so they both stood for Kaddish for the full 11 months for each of my grandparents. Since the deaths occurred over seven months, that means my parents stood for Kaddish every day for eighteen months, a full year and a half. They finally got to sit down for Kaddish beginning on erev second day Rosh HaShanah. Of course, that was followed by Yizkor on Yom Kippur, and Yizkor again on Shemini Atzeret, and then my Grandma’s first yahrtzeit just a week later.

But then Tishrei ended, and Cheshvan began, and my parents went to Israel for five weeks to help take care of my sister’s then three-month-old baby girl. It was a powerful reminder that life continues and begins anew, that moments of intensity are followed by moments of calmness. It was Cheshvan that gave them respite.

I may be a bit biased. My Bat Mitzvah was seventeen years ago, Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Mar Cheshvan, 5751. Ever since, I’ve felt an affinity for this month that is so often overlooked and marginalized, assumed to be bitter. But I believe that “Mr. Cheshvan” holds his head up high, and comforts those who are struggling not to give into the bitterness of their own lives.

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2 Responses to Not letting bitterness mar our souls

  1. Irene says:

    I loved this post. It reminded me of those difficult months and the joy brought by the new life. But I didn’t have to think it through feeling my way around the memories because you had done it for me. That’s like a gift to me. Thank you.

  2. Ducky says:

    What a beautiful d’rash. It shows what a wonderful rabbi you’d have been. And happy Bat Mitzvah anniversary. When we were doing the service today–from 9 til 12:15 (and that included only a short Musaf!)–I kept thinking about your having led the entire service flawlessly, with such great meaning, and with such intense kavannah. What you accomplished at that tender age is so astoundingly remarkable. A blessing on your head.

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