Wisconsin is beautiful this time of year. All of nature presents in magnificent autumn hues—endless variations and combinations of rich reds, oranges and brilliant greens and yellows. The breathtaking beauty brings a sobering awareness with it, however. It is the prelude to the cold, chilling winter that renders the trees and countryside barren and sterile.
In our neck of the woods, it also announces that the Jewish month of Cheshvan is upon us. This month is commonly referred to by our Sages as Marchesvan or the "bitter month." It represents a "chilling out" from all the frenetic activity of its preceding month, Tishrei. But, why does this pause in time warrant a designation of "bitter" more so than even Av, the month in which we commemorate the destruction of our Holy Temple and many other "bitter" events? Our Sages note that Cheshvan, in fact, is the only month in the Jewish calendar that is unmarked by any event – joyous or tragic. Events in the Jewish calendar mark the history of God's loving relationship with us. Even the commemoration of tragic days reminds us there is a Heavenly Parent, nudging us to "get back on track," so as not to repeat the wrongs and misdeeds of our forefathers. In the month of Cheshvan, there is only silence. It is this lack of communication between God and his children during this month that warrants the addition of "mar", bitter in Hebrew, to the month of Cheshvan.
In Yiddish it is said, "so long as one has a parent, one can still feel like a child."
I am keenly aware of the bitter quality of Cheshvan in a very personal way. Both my parents (of blessed memory) passed away in Cheshvan (one, eight years following the other). A desolation spread over the landscape of my life. No matter how sick or infirm they were in their later years, for better or for worse, I was grateful to have them. In Yiddish it is said, "so long as one has a parent, one can still feel like a child." As long as there is a loving parent in one's life, though there may be times of rebuke or chastisement, one feels cherished and thus connected. Cheshvan brings to me a chilling loneliness having lost that tangible bond.
The commentary, Sfas Emes, shares a marvelous insight into the meaningfulness of our bond and relationship with our Heavenly Parent. For his role in convincing Eve and hence Adam to eat of the forbidden fruit in paradise, the Almighty punishes the snake to crawl and eat dust. Is this an equitable punishment, asks the Sfas Emes, as compared to Adam's sentence to eat bread by the sweat of his brow; or as compared to Eve's punishment of pain and sadness in bearing and raising her progeny?
The Sfas Emes explains that the physical and emotional difficulties a person encounters as a result of this timeless sentence forces the individual to look Heavenward for assistance. In so doing, the lines of communication between man and his Heavenly Creator are opened, thus fostering a loving, caring relationship. The snake may indeed have been provided with all the dust he would ever need for his physical well-being. At the same time, however, the snake was condemned to face downward and given abundant sustenance so that he would not need to turn to God for anything, thus denying him the precious relationship Adam had been afforded with the Almighty. The snake's punishment is, clearly, the most severe and hopeless of all.
In an interview with a member of the Jewish Welfare Board of America, Miriam isolated the Friday night Sabbath celebration as the singular event in her formative years which ultimately led to her positive feelings about being Jewish. She didn't grow up in a "religious" home. And, her parents, quite liberal for the times, gave her the freedom during the week to make her own choices regarding how and with whom she spent her time. But, Friday night was non-negotiable. Her parents insisted that come proms, ball games, school theater productions, she and her siblings would be home sharing "Shabbat" dinner together. Miriam admitted that at the time she was resentful of her parents' rigid enforcement of this family rule. She recognizes in retrospect, however, that her parent's strong and passionate stance conveyed a deeper message of caring, both for her and for the sanctity of the Sabbath.
Apathy and indifference, not caring one way or the other, and self-absorption are the guarantors of a lonely, uninspiring existence.
Linda, a woman married for a number of years, confided that she was leaving her marriage to Howard because she felt no commitment. Her husband was a nice man, and denied her little, but at the same time, he was apathetic and indifferent. He seemed to avoid feeling passionate about anything, even his wife, and thus a chasm of emptiness and silence grew between them over the years. Linda, hopeless for quite sometime now that things would change, had finally given up completely.
Apathy and indifference, not caring one way or the other, lacking passion, an unwillingness to invest in relationships, self-absorption, and disaffection are the guarantors of a lonely, uninspiring existence. It is true that caring deeply about something carries with it a greater risk of being hurt. The lesson of "Marcheshvan" teaches us that if we don't accept the risk, for better or for worse, we may be faced with a more "bitter" alternative.