As the Hebrew month of Tishrei comes to an end, we begin the month of Cheshvan, the only Hebrew month without holy days.
Those who live here in Israel have experienced the full impact of Tishrei, a month full of holy days: Rosh HaShanah, the Days of Awe, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. So many holidays mean that nothing gets done until “after the holy days” — and that means nothing.
This maybe isn’t all that bad unless, of course, you have something pressing that needs to be taken care of, but then it’s the same for everything — “After the holy days!”
During the week between the holy day of Sukkot and that of Simchat Torah, practically nobody works. These days are known as Chol Hamoed and are regarded as “half” holy days. During this time, many Israelis travel and no schools are in session.
Also, in a foreshadowing of the fulfillment of Zechariah 14:16–17; Isaiah 18:7 and Micah 4:2, among other verses, many Believers from around the globe gather in Jerusalem for the Feast.
One of the highlights is the priestly blessing that is given at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. It draws as many as 50,000 people.
But there are other differences between these two months.
During the month of Tishrei when God is constantly being sought, we can easily sense His presence.
But after Sukkot, which is a festival of unity and joy, and Simchat Torah, when we celebrate our unique relationship with the Almighty and the Torah that He has granted us, we begin Cheshvan, the only month in the Jewish calendar that does not have even one festival day.
Cheshvan begins on October 14th this year. It is a month in which we refocus on things that are more mundane; nevertheless, we are still aware of His presence. It is a time of returning to the routine, daily life and of bringing out the very best in ourselves through hard work. (Chabad)
During the time of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, all male Jews would make their pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the seven-day holiday of Sukkot.
Once the festival was completed, the caravans would stream back from whence they came as people returned to their homes to begin plowing and cultivating their vineyards and orchards.
The end of the first week of the month of Cheshvan found the people of Israel once more “each under his grapevine, each under his fig tree.” (Chabad)
In consideration for the pilgrims returning to their lands, the traditional prayer for rain that is added to the Amidah (Standing Prayer, also called the Shemoneh Esrei, which means 18) during Cheshvan is delayed until the 7th of the month, so that the trip home could be done in reasonable comfort:
“Bless this year and all its produce for the good for us, O HaShem our G-d, and grant dew and rain as a blessing on the face of the earth …”
This prayer continues to be recited three times a day until Pesach (Passover).
Cheshvan is also called Marcheshvan, which means Bitter Cheshvan.
Cheshvan is considered somewhat bitter because of the transition from focusing on the Holy One to focusing on the more mundane aspects of life.
Traditionally, it is the month when the flood began during Noah’s time. The waters receded a year later, also in Cheshvan, allowing Noah, his family and the animals to leave the ark.
It is also the month that Matriarch Rachel died while giving birth to Benjamin.
Just as the seeds that were planted during Tishrei are being watered during Cheshvan, and just as Noah disembarked the ark and planted seeds for new growth, and just as Rachel died when Benjamin was born, at Cheshvan we understand that there is hope for future growth.
Holiness and the Mundane
The ordinary days of Cheshvan remind us of the very purpose of our lives.
We do not live only for the spiritual experiences of festivals but, rather, these special days exist for the sake of what some may call the more mundane days of our lives. (Chabad)
God is not only found in the spiritually lofty dimensions, He is also present in the physical and routine aspects of our lives. He dwells in all of the realms of His creation.
In a way, Cheshvan demonstrates the concealment or the hiddenness of God since in the purely physical realm, we often struggle with meeting basic survival needs. When we are in survival mode, there is often little concern for the spiritual, and we can be less aware of our Maker than our surroundings and experiences.
In the physical realm alone, God’s creation can live in such a way that denies His existence. But it is in this physical realm, with all of its mundane tasks and all of our human limitations, that God desired a dwelling for Him be built so we could meet with Him here.
He thus delegated to man the task of living in the physical while serving Him.
“I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles.” (Isaiah 42:6)
It is in this physical or more mundane realm that we are truly able to carry out our life’s purpose.
In the midst of day-to-day responsibilities, we can transform these mundane tasks by weaving them together with the spiritual so the tapestry of our lives is one that honors and pleases God. The spiritual inspires and assists us in meeting this goal.
So much so that one who rejects the physical and only seeks spiritual goals is shunning and abandoning what is, in fact, his or her primary mission in life — to serve the Creator in and through the world.
And so the spiritual period of Tishrei serves the material portion of our lives, represented by Cheshvan. Those spiritual days supply us with fortitude and strength so that we may better function during the times in which we face the dull and ordinary realities of life. (Chabad)
Therefore, we must not lose sight of the spiritual while we attend to the ordinary details of our lives.
As we navigate this side of life, we must be aware of God’s presence and that we are called to serve Him in everything we do — whether we are cleaning dishes, caring for the sick, running a marathon, or conducting business.
The matriarch Sarah provides a wonderful example of someone who kept God in focus in trying circumstances.
The Bible tells us how she was taken into Pharaoh’s palace in Egypt. At the time, she had access to the best that the material world had to offer, but it was couched within a pagan culture and all that stood for.
The Talmud (compendium of rabbinic teachings on the Torah) reminds us that Sarah could have given herself over to the so-called “good things” of life but, instead, she remained true to her faith in Abraham’s God, whom she knew to be the true Lord of the universe.
Therefore, Sarah, by not allowing the material advantages of her surroundings to dominate her, maintained a right attitude and continued to serve God. She had pity for those who had access to such riches, but were impoverished spiritually, not using their wealth properly in the service of the One True God.
Thus, the rabbis teach us that because of her commitment to sanctifying every aspect of her life, which is a central purpose of all Jews, even today, Sarah is a role model for future generations.
Sarah was able to elevate the mundane and make it holy, to use all that she had to enhance her relationship with God, regardless of the circumstances.
The Talmud teaches that because of Sarah’s ability to take what was mundane and allow that which is Divine in, God gave her three miracles: her Shabbat candles burned throughout the week, her challah bread had a special divine quality, and God’s Presence hung over her tent in the form of a cloud.
Of course, we also wish that despite all the ordinary duties of everyday life, God’s supernatural Presence would rest on our homes.
The month of Cheshvan can point the way. Though the month is devoid of holy days, the rabbis teach us that we need to see every month as being a little like the month of Elul, the month of holy preparation for the High Holy Days.
If we do not learn that every day is important, life becomes routine and can quickly become a kind of drudgery.
They teach us that as our father Abraham treated each day of his life as being special, so should we. Thus, we are taught that the holiness of the Shabbat is intended to be spread out during the entire week.
So, just because we are moving from the “holy” months of Elul and Tishrei into the uneventful month of Cheshvan, we are not to allow the spirit of holiness to leave our lives.
Rather, we are to bring that spirit with us into this seemingly less spiritual month.
For after all, following the God of Israel is a way for interacting with the world: how we run our business, perform our daily duties, and treat our employees, friends, family members, and the needy. It is a “way of life.”
The famous Jewish philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Judaism is a theology of the common deed, of the trivialities of life, dealing not so much with training for the exceptional as with the management of the trivial.”
Judaism introduces the holy into the mundane through the concept of kedushah, or sanctification.
This was once carried out through the Temple sacrificial system. Today it is performed through acts of self-sacrifice and kindness toward our fellowman.
We demonstrate this by the way we relate to others in our daily lives, whether through giving moral support, tzedakah (charity), or empathy and understanding.
Holiness in the Community
The Torah teaches us that sanctification of the mundane requires several steps.
We need to first distinguish between the holy and the unholy, but be able, as Yeshua (Jesus) was, to eat with thieves and cast out demons, bringing the message of freedom from slavery to sin to all who will hear.
The Torah identifies how to carry out the sacred — within a community.
Sanctification, therefore, occurs through the intentions of the individual but within the context of collective activity.
We as individual Jews are taught through the Torah to be a part of this world and to not reject it. Each individual is encouraged to maintain a link with the community through connections with others and institutions.
Our interactions with the environment sanctify it.
When we are sinful toward one another, we create a barrier — not only between each other, but between God and us. The connection between the mundane life that we live and the infinite and holy God becomes blocked.
But if we truly follow after Adonai, our actions and attitudes toward one another will follow those of Adonai.
“You are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.” (Nehemiah 9:17)
What we say to others reflects the condition of our spirit. Like a bully who preys on the physically or mentally weak, “spiritual” bullies prey on those whom they have spiritual strength over.
Their words kill the spirit, find fault and never praise.
On the other hand, we can identify true followers of Adonai and the Messiah because His Spirit resides in them, extending grace and abounding in love as they interact with peers and subordinates.
Just as the Hebrew calendar can be differentiated based on spiritual and mundane periods, some differentiate the body of Messiah by lifting up certain members, such as pastors and missionaries, above others, such as lay members of the congregation, and even between rich and poor.
But Yeshua says that “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:24)
If the entire context of our lives in community with others is meant to be sacred and full of love, then Yeshua has a role in all of it. In His eyes, we are all His children.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Messiah Yeshua.” (Galatians 3:28)
All of life is meant to be lived in service to Him, not just giving a few hours a week to Him or a few kind words only to those we esteem.
“Let nothing be done through strife or vain glory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves.” (Philippians 2:3)
If we are truly the body of Messiah, His Word will be embodied in our daily existence. Through our mundane activities, those who do not yet know Yeshua will see our Messiah-directed life and want to know more about who we truly serve and why.