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Why Humdrum Cheshvan Is the Jewish Month We All Need Right Now

No holidays. No special rituals. But it’s the perfect chance to rediscover the divine possibility of the boring.

Stuart Halpern
October 20, 2020
Original image: Library of Congress
Original image: Library of Congress
Original image: Library of Congress
Original image: Library of Congress

No one Instagrams taking down their sukkah. Polishing and prepping one’s menorah seven-plus weeks before Hanukkah begins is not something even the most pious would venture to do. And so, here we are: The High Holidays are over, and the next festivity is months away. We’re into Cheshvan now, the only month on the Hebrew calendar that contains absolutely no celebrations, commemorations, or special occasions. Cheshvan is ordinary, humdrum, boring. It’s also precisely what we all need right now.

If you paid even marginal attention to the news cycle in 2020, you understand exactly why the Chinese consider “may you live in interesting times” to be the ultimate curse. A global plague, nationwide protests, a political process teetering on the verge of chaos, an economy in ruins—this year has already been plenty interesting, and a month with nothing additional out of the ordinary comes as a relief.

But Cheshvan isn’t magical merely because it offers us a few days of blissful routine in an otherwise hugely disruptive year. It’s meaningful because it reminds us of the lesson we too often forget, namely that the path to peace, enlightenment, well-being, and all the other good things we seek requires mastering the mundane.

It’s a difficult insight to digest, especially now that the memory of Tishrei’s holidays is still fresh. Shouldn’t religion be about that transcendent feeling we feel when it’s just about sundown on Yom Kippur, and we’re wearing white and affirming again and again our commitment to God? Shouldn’t it be all festive and sweet, as it is when we say the blessings and bite into that honey-dipped apple on Rosh Hashanah?

The ancient rabbis who shaped so much of our tradition thought differently. Crack open the Talmud, for example, and you might think you’ll be instantly blown away by sonnets of spiritual profundity and mystical paeans to the divine. Instead, there are mostly banal details. Lots of regular, unexciting, very unmagical specifics. Tractate Berachot, for instance, the Talmud’s first book, begins not with an articulation of our tradition’s most lyrical blessings and prayers, but with a discussion of the timing for reciting the evening Shema. Can you say it until midnight? How about until sunrise? And what exactly constitutes nightfall anyway—is it sunset or when three stars can be seen in the sky? One is more likely to come across details of where not to pray (say, a dangerous, broken-down building) than deep philosophical discussions of what the prayers actually mean.

Now, look: I’m a rabbi. I went to yeshiva. I spend large parts of my days carefully studying the Talmud. And yet, when one of my less-observant friends complains to me about the absolutely, positively, resolutely noninspiring nature of our sacred texts, I totally get it. Anyone looking for meaning in religion, especially if they’re newish to the pursuit, would greatly appreciate a bit of pomp and a dab of circumstance, some indication that here be deep truths worth cherishing. Why, then, scare off seekers by making sure that your seminal text reads more like an insurance claims adjuster’s manual than like a meditation on the divine?

In true Jewish fashion, let me answer this question with a story. Once upon a time, a few of our greatest rabbis were asked what, in their opinion, was the most important verse in the Bible. It’s the sort of trivia stumper that our sages, obsessive compulsives as they so often were, relished, and they wasted no time diving right in. The Bible’s top verse? No brainer, said Ben Zoma: It’s the Shema, proclaiming the oneness of God and the Jewish people’s undying fealty to Him. It’s essentially the theological baseline for the entire enterprise. Rabbi Ben Nanas, on his end, nodded, and said that while the Shema was great and all, top honors must go to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” that boldly benevolent mandate. Another ancient Jewish scholar, one Jesus of Nazareth, agreed with both, and, when asked the same question, ranked these very same verses as his No. 1 and No. 2 picks, respectively. But, according to the 15th-century talmudist Rav Ya’akov Ibn Chaviv in his introduction to his midrashic collection Ein Yaakov, the best answer was probably given by one Shimon ben Pazi.

The most important verse in the Bible, quoth ben Pazi, was this: “The first lamb you shall sacrifice in the morning and the second lamb you shall sacrifice in the evening.”

Really? How are we supposed to find any meaning in a verse that describes the order of sacrifice in the ancient Temple, a reality now millennia removed from our own? The answer is as simple as it is profound: Judaism, ben Pazi realized, like all religions, has its theological innovations and its poetically packaged moral teachings. It has its moments of personal and communal elevations, its agonies and its ecstasies and all of the other real emotions you’d expect to feel when dealing with issues like good and bad and forgiveness and sin. But Judaism’s true uniqueness, the engine that has powered our people through an endless history alternatingly lachrymose and redemptive, is its everyday, consistent observance. After all, spiritual sublimity is an effervescent goal. You obtain it or you don’t. But Judaism is a system predicated on action and doing. It asks not for reaching transcendent mountaintops, but for repetitive, consistent mundanity. If, as G.K. Chesteron once put it, “the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate,” Judaism’s chariot is powered by dozens of daily practices.

Which brings us back to Cheshvan. If you’re feeling like things are sliding off the rails these days—and if you’re not, please call me and tell me your secret to serenity—Cheshvan offers you a crash course in Judaism’s truest wisdom. You don’t have to wear a kittel or fast for 25 hours or shake various foodstuffs in a particular order. All you have to do is pick one thing and do it, reminding yourself, as you go along, that the road to real redemption is traveled not in giant leaps that change your life overnight but in small, measured steps that remind us, again and again and again, that we have the power to impact change, but that we must also have the patience. Working out your soul isn’t so different from working out your abs or your quads or your gluts—it’s about sweating a bit each day.

And so, in its infinite wisdom, Judaism followed up the most ecstatic of all months with the most boring one, to give us the space we need to commit to our spiritual workout. What, then, can you do?

Maybe praying three times a day, or even once, is too much. Try the 15-second-long blessing every time you exit the bathroom (yes, that’s a thing, and it was once praised in the Journal of the American Medical Association). Maybe now’s the time to light Shabbat candles for this time, or put on tzitzit or tefillin for the first time in a while, with what used to be a morning commute to work rendered null. Maybe you summon the courage, and the sourdough starter, to bake your own challah every week. Whatever it is, make it a regular practice this Cheshvan. You’ll find your spiritual and moral muscles trained the same way you would work out your biceps and triceps. Sure, some of these rituals might strike you as the equivalent of leg day, and we all know how unexciting practice can be. But as we recover from a month of spiritual uplift and brace ourselves from a month (or more) of political and societal discontent, Cheshvan’s reminder to be regular is what we sorely need. Coming between the High Holidays’ pageantry and before Hanukkah’s, and America’s, attempt to define national ethos, it grants us four weeks to just be joyful in the messy and mundane routine, and recognize the divine possibility of the boring.

Observing a pivotal era in our country’s history, Alexis de Tocqueville observed: “In America, it is religion that leads to enlightenment; it is the observance of divine laws that guides man to freedom.” This year, let us observe Cheshvan as it was always meant to be kept. No apples, ram’s horns, bamboo roofing, or bumpy citrus required. All this month asks us to do is to commit to the rough, never-ending trod through the daily, non-headline-making sacrifices our faith asks us to make, granting us, as they do, glimmers of freedom.

Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern is Senior Adviser to the Provost of Yeshiva University and Deputy Director of Y.U.’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. His books include The Promise of Liberty: A Passover Haggada, which examines the Exodus story’s impact on the United States, Esther in America, Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth and Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States.