Jewish academic and Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster delves into the meaning to be found in the mundane and how the present is connected to the future.
After the month of Tishri, which is filled with Jewish festivals, starting with Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year), through Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and finishing with Succot (Tabernacles) and Simchat Torah (the Joy of the Law), we move on to Cheshvan or Marcheshvan, often translated as 'the Bitterness of Cheshvan'.
This month falls between the joyous month of Tishri and the inspirational month of Kislev, when we light Chanukah candles and give thanks for the miracle of the oil and the lights which safeguarded monotheism for the world.
But Marcheshvan, the in-between month, has no festivals and many find it depressing.
However, Marcheshvan, also known as Bul, actually incorporates the concepts of Tishri within it, teaching us to actualize what we have learnt during the many festivals which have now finished. The month of Marcheshvan also looks to the future redemption. For, according to rabbinic thought, the Third Temple will be built in the month of Marcheshvan.
This month we always read the Torah parshioyot of Noah, Lech Lecha, Vayera and Chayei Sara. These major readings cover Genesis 6:9 until 25:18.
We covered the story of Noah in a previous article, in which the Flood is followed by the attempted construction of the Tower of Babel, which leads to destruction and dispersion.
The famous parsha of Lech Lecha includes the very mundane events of Abram leaving his homeland, trekking to the Promised Land of Israel, and having to negotiate in various ways with a number of other people and nations who don't always have his best interests at heart.
For many, the most famous event of this period of Abram's life does not appear in the Bible. This is the midrash relating that because he would not worship idols, Abram was cast by the wicked Nimrod (instigator of the Tower of Babel) into the fiery furnace in Ur Kasdim (Ur of the Chaldees) but survived. The word 'Ur' can mean 'fire'.
Abram's brother takes the normal way out – he sits on the fence. Which way will the wind blow? For Abram or for Nimrod? Abram survives the fiery furnace. Haran therefore opts to follow him into the flames. Unfortunately, it is too late – Haran is consumed. This is what is meant by the lines: 'And Haran died in the lifetime of his father Terah' (Genesis 11:28).
The miracle of Abram's survival in the fiery furnace, known to Jewish school children the world over, is however not included in the Torah, which instead chooses to highlight behaviour in everyday life. The way that Abram behaves in less heroic settings goes together with the revolutionary belief in the One G-d which he brings to the world. To the rabbis, it is the little things of life, the routines and how we follow them, that prepare us for the very big decisions that may or may not hit the headlines.
This story reminds us of politicians who make up their minds simply by looking to see which way the wind is going, making decisions to join alliances simply based on what's in it for them. This is nothing new – it's there in the story of the birth of Judaism.
And yet, how does Abram respond to his brother's betrayal? Yes, he leaves the place of his birth. But, and it is a very big but, he also opts to adopt his brother's son Lot, as his own. And even though Lot repeats his father's fence-sitting, if not treachery, including at the famous story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abram always looks out for him.
But despite the behaviour of Lot himself, from Lot's line will emerge Ruth, the great-grandmother of David, ancestress of the Messiah.
According to rabbinic interpretations, we do not all have to make decisions based on fiery furnaces (or lions' dens for that matter). However, we do all have to make choices. Do we choose to use social media? What books do we read? If we have a TV, what programmes do we watch? And hardest of all, when we hear gossip, malicious or otherwise, do we join in, simply leave, or tell people what we think, risking ostracism from our communities and worse?
These are perennial questions which hit us daily and which we have to deal with whether we like it or not. Judaism does not tell us to lead the life of hermetic silence. It is how we interact with the world that counts. And Abram is the supreme example of how to do this.
The following parsha Vayera, contains the story of the Akeda, the binding of Isaac, in which Abraham's son is willing to die for G-d. However, when Isaac survives this ordeal and is replaced by a ram, we don't hear about him again until his marriage to Rivka. What was Isaac doing all this time? According to rabbinic thought, Isaac went straight from nearly being slaughtered to learning with Shem and Eber, his ancestors.
Having learnt the lesson of how to die for G-d, Isaac now has to learn the lesson of how to live for G-d. And, according to the rabbis, you can only do this by first studying Torah and then putting what you learn into practice.
Very similar to what we have learned about Abraham, it is daily routine and mundane decisions that count.
Finally, we have the parsha of Chayei Sarah (The Life/Lives of Sarah). Once again, it is the mundane that is emphasized. Abraham purchases the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, where all the Patriarchs and Matriarchs will be buried (save Rivka). Rivka is found as a wife for Isaac. Why? Because she gives water to the camels of a stranger. Everyday events. But it is how this is done which is crucial.
So far therefore, we have found that this month contains no festivals, but teaches us how to bring the Torah values imbibed during the preceding month of Tishri into everyday life. We now have to look to the future.
Why is Marcheshvan known as 'bitter Cheshvan'. The word 'mar' on its own means 'bitter'. But, very often in Tanach, the term 'mar' implies a bitterness which leads not simply to the ridding of bitterness through action, but to something much better.
One example is the 'bitter water' of Exodus 15:25. The children of Israel have just crossed over the Reed Sea and rejoiced. But once in the desert, they have gone a very long time without water and then the only water they find in the desert is in a place called 'Marah' (bitterness'). The people complain to Moses, so G-d 'instructs' Moses to throw a tree into the water. The water does not simply lose its bitterness, but actually becomes sweet.
The word for 'instructs' is related to the term Torah, Jewish teaching. And this reminds us of the Torah being a Tree of Life for those who drink from it. Through G-d's instruction to Moses, the people do not simply assuage their thirst, but learn a lesson for life. Very soon, they reach Elim, with its '12 springs of water and 70 palm trees.' (Exodus13:27).
This is only one of many examples of the term 'mar' (bitter) anticipating positive sweetness.
But in fact, Marcheshvan does not have to imply bitterness at all. In early Aramaic, the month simply means 'month number 8', which makes sense, when numbered from Nisan, the first month, during which we celebrate Pesach.
Finally, the other name for this month is Bul, which is related to Mabul, the term for 'Flood', as we saw in the Parshah of Noach. In itself the great Flood destroyed the world as we know it, but it led to the rebirth of the world. And it is during this month that we actually pray for the rain that will make future crops grow.
Bul comes from the verb blh, meaning crops that are withered or decayed. So this is the time of year when once again we look to the future, to the rains that will bring in future harvests.
So, to recap, the month of Marcheshvan does not need to be either boring or bitter. It can be a time for renewal, when we look to the past and the wonderful festivals that we have just celebrated; concentrate on the present with the day to day actions so vividly exemplified in the Torah readings for this month; and, through praying for rain and thinking about our next major festival of Chanukah in the month of Kislev, we look forward to the building of the 3rd Temple, anticipated to take place in this very month of Marcheshvan.