Cheshvan: Facing the Ordinary
Now is the time to put into action all the hopes, prayers and resolutions we made at the start of the Jewish New Year.
Our feet are on the floor again. Tishrei, the month of the holy days that change us forever, leads us to a place of calm that we laughingly refer to as "real life." The question that we have to ask ourselves at this point is "how do we relate to the ordinary?" The answer that we offer as Jews is with mindfulness, with the desire to find meaning, and most of all with a deep belief that God is unchanging and, by definition, is no more or less present at any time or place.
What makes one time different than another time -- say the stillness before the Chazzan begins to chant Ne'ilah, the intensely sacred end of the Yom Kippur service, and 7:45 a.m. on an ordinary weekday as we turn off the alarm clock for the second time and yearn to reunite with our covers and sheets -- is not God. It is us.
There are times when the best way to serve God is to look deeply within ourselves, and He provides us with special times in which it is easier and more accessible to make the sort of discoveries that can move us forward. There are other times in which the best way to serve Him is to interact with His world, to get out of that warm bed, take a shower, get dressed, say a prayer and face the world head on. He provides us with time and space for tikkun olam, for repairing the world, and when Cheshvan, the second month in the Jewish calendar comes around, we have to take a deep breathe and say, "The time is now." All of the hopes, prayers and moments in which we saw ourselves clearly committed to growth have to be concretized. We have to see that our checks don't bounce.
Although the name of the month, Cheshvan, is of Babylonian origin, like all of the names of the months of the Hebrew calendar, it is sometimes given another name in the books of prophecy. In Kings 1:6 it is called the month of Bul. What does that word mean?
The classical commentators have differing ideas of its root. Rashi, the most renowned of the commentators who devoted their energy to give us clear and accurate interpretation of the straightforward meaning of every difficult phrase in the Torah, tells us that it is related to the root Balla, which means mixture. The grain that began to grow at summer's beginning is withering, necessitating that animals eat a mixture of grain from the current harvest, and grain that was preserved domestically from previous harvests.
Rabbi David Kimchi, the Radak, one of our greatest grammarians, sees the root coming from the word Yibol, which means crop, as it is now, when the final days of the summer's crops have ended that we have to begin planting again. The Midrash says something that combines both ideas. "This month is the one in which the great Flood took place. It is the month in which the rains begin to fall again, thus is decreed. It is the time of destruction the like of which the world has never seen, and at the same time it is the time of rebirth, of withering and renewal."
The Flood began on the 17th of the month. Interestingly the numerical value of the word Tov (good) is 17. There are many words that a person with any sensitivity might select to describe the horror of almost absolute destruction. Tov is not the first one that comes to mind. We must at this point digress a moment and define "good."
Maimonides tells us that the multiple meanings that the word "good" has lends itself to confusion not only in the literary sense, but in the philosophic sense as well. "Good" can mean "effective" as in "My new washing machine is just so good. The clothes come out looking new." It can also mean aesthetic: "He never looked half as good as he did the day he got married." It can also mean "reflecting God's light," as in "He was a good man."
The desolation that Noah faced is often misinterpreted as being for the "good" in the first sense. The world had gone wrong, and it just wasn't worth letting the humans who were created to leave the imprint of God wherever they set foot, to defile themselves and the world any longer. While this is certainly an accurate statement, it hardly gives us more than a glimpse at anything other than a rigid, black and white, two-dimensional presentation of a tragedy that dwarfed the Holocaust.
Another mistaken view is that the issue was aesthetic. People were living lives that were ugly. Cruelty, immorality, sexual exploitation is irredeemably hideous. We associate brutality with ugliness. The reason is that beauty and harmony are physical expressions of balance and truth, and we are repulsed by their opposites. Historically we have a disturbing penchant to allow anything to happen as long as we don't have to watch it. Slave quarters were not what guests set their eyes one as they meandered up the road to the manor houses that were the center of social life in the American South.
It was evil that caused the world's worst disaster. Not inadequacy, not ugliness, but something far worse. Evil is what reduces humans to animals, and reduces God's world to being nothing more than a jungle. The downward moral spiral that led to the Flood is sickeningly familiar. The first step was relating to women as pleasure objects. The Torah tells us, "The men who were Godlike (meaning powerful) took any woman they wanted (included married women)." In order to justify their actions they created systems of religious belief in which God was reduced to a bigger version of themselves (similar to what we find in Greek mythology), or so far beyond this world and its limitations, that their deeds seemed hardly relevant.
The next step is violence, the inevitable result of removing God from the picture. The co-relationship between Godlessness and violence can be observed by taking a glance at the animal kingdom. Their lives a brutal and short; they live without any concept of any value being more sacred than survival. If all life is about is physical survival, contentment, and preservation, then nothing makes less sense than having a universe that expands very much beyond you or includes other players. As we all figured out very early on, if I have one cookie and give you half, all I have left is half a cookie.
The final step downward was the world entering a stage in which petty theft was as natural as breathing. When a person steals something significant, at least theoretically he is still redeemable. He may have a fairly intact sense of right and wrong, and just be too weak to integrate what he knows to be true into his life. When a person steals things of little value, the experiential statement that he repeats again and again each time he is faced with a choice is that life is about taking. Once that mentality typifies all of humankind, then there is nothing good (in the ultimate sense of the word) that can survive.
Humans are defined by the act of being and becoming. Once we forget "being" and adapt "having" as our supreme value, then we are no longer "good." The Flood reintroduced the concept of humans being human. The only survivor (other than his immediate family who were saved in his merit) is described as a righteous man. Noah is called "whole" or "simple." The way the Torah uses the word "simple" when describing Noah is the same way a chemist uses the word "simple" -- he was what he was, without additions or mixtures. He was gloriously, dazzlingly true to his archetype; he was a human being. The Flood made the world human, good, and worthy of continued survival.
Prayer for Rain
In Israel we add a request for rain to our prayers starting from the 7th day of Cheshvan. We see rain as the physical manifestation of life force at its very source. Everything that lives depends on water to survive. Our bodies are close to 86 percent water. The spiritual source of life, God's compassion and creativity, is manifested concretely through His gift. In fact the Hebrew word for "physicality," gashmiut, literally means "raininess," the word for rain being "geshem". The rain we see is the source of being and becoming. We have to be mindful enough to see it a, and not to fall into the trap of thinking that it is the source of having and consuming. When we open our minds to see the rainfall for the blessing it is, each time it rains, our awareness is altered. The Talmud tells us that rain is an enormous statement of Gods presence in the day to day world, just listen to the comparisons that Talmud presents to us.
1. A rainy day is greater than the day the Torah was given
2. A rainy day is greater than the day the heavens and earth were created.
3. It makes salvation multiply
4. It tells us that our sins are forgiven
5. Whatever we own is blessed
6. It is greater than the day when the exiled Jews return to Israel.
7. Even the armies are stopped by its force.
Why is rain considered to be greater than the most significant moments in all of history? In what sense is it s source of inspiration and blessing?
The answer is that we were put in a physical world with all of its temptations and inherent concealment of God's presence. Our role is to light a candle in a dark place, and let the goodness that it reflects illuminate the entire world. Rain gives everything material life. God is as much there as He is in the realms of being. There is one critical difference. In the higher realms of being, and in the more dramatic moments of history, it took very little soul searching for us to know God. When the world is in its less dramatic mode, far more is required for us to have an authentic relationship to the world's Creator.
In Cheshvan we have choices to make about our relationship to the real world, the ordinary days and months that we have yet to face. We have to make commitments to not flinch in the face of the mundane things we see, and the simple choices we make.
Cheshvan is a time of great opportunity. Let's close our eyes, swallow the phrase "just be normal" with a cup of water to wash it down, and fight the good fight, the one in which goodness, in its highest sense, always prevails.