By Saul Golubcow
In my Jewish day school’s fifth grade religious studies class, Rabbi W. gave us an exercise to identify each new Jewish month and tell about it. When Tishri ended in late October, we confidently answered “Cheshvan.”
Rabbi W. told us we were partially correct. The full name of the month, he amended, was “Marcheshvan,” bitter Cheshvan (think maror on Pesach). Why the bitterness? Rabbi W. gave us two explanations.
First, the children’s version to which we easily related. Anthropomorphized, poor Cheshvan felt bitter for being the only month that had no Jewish holiday, especially following Tishri with its multiple observances.
Then he offered us an adult version. We are often bitter after the Yom Tovim because with all the New Year vows, we’re frustrated not being able to follow through and become angry with ourselves and those around us. But when Kislev comes with the miracle of Chanukah, our spirits are rejuvenated. Poor Cheshvan with its 29 days of disconsolation!
Back then, I had no cogent understanding of Rabbi W.’s second explanation. I may now. On Oct. 7, we begin the month of (Mar)Cheshvan, and the bitterness tag unfortunately fits much too well. For that matter, regardless of the month’s boundaries, I sense a bitterness, locust-like, has swept our country, devouring comity, friendship and united purpose, both national and within our Jewish community.
The extent to which Cheshvan and all other months have been marred is so pervasive that there is probably no top-down prescription or intervention for stopping the spread. Any hope lies in bottom-up responsiveness to the Jewish spark of decency within each of us as we join with others to become the flame that may light perspective to ameliorate the bitterness. And perhaps establishing each day in Cheshvan as part of a dis-“mar”-ment month would make Cheshvan itself feel better.
For instance, our emphasis on lashon hara, speech that debases another person, has greatly waned over the last few decades. My teachers ceaselessly reminded us that speaking ill of others was a bane of Jewish existence, destructive both to the target of the assault and to the assailant. Invariably, discussion groups on lashon hara were included in adult education offerings. It was a mainstay of rabbinical sermons and b’nai mitzvah talks. Might we in Cheshvan resurrect conversations on lashon hara as a chip against our bitterness psyche?
Has bitterness, as it is wont to do, spawned hypocrisy with the promotion of civil discourse one dissimulation too far? Take a look at the letters to the editor, op-eds and comments sections of your favorite media sites including Jewish weeklies. They often contain broadsides, not about policy disagreements or flawed logic, but rather ad hominem recriminations aimed at differing voices and other letter writers. As a brake on unchecked fury, might we at least during Cheshvan, when we are penning our thoughts or discussing differences of opinion, not begin with “j’accuse” or “any rational person would …” but rather with “je pense” or “here is the basis for my position”?
Might we take a moment in Cheshvan to assess the rationalization of our bitterness as we righteously claim, “we are at war, so all’s fair” or “they started it, they called us a name first, so there”? Might Cheshvan be a time to return to what we learned in kindergarten and reflect on how easily our lessons become unraveled over a period of self-indulgent bitterness?
For decades, we treasured for its vitality the old Jewish synagogue joke of “ask two congregants and get three opinions.” But as Cheshvan is upon us, has this humor expired as synagogues not only harbor the clash of viewpoints, but also the bitter repudiations by majority factions of minority voices, expressed as “if you don’t agree with us, well you don’t belong here”? As part of Cheshvan’s dis-mar-ment, might the poor month even meekly ask for a moment’s introspection on the honesty of our claims to wanting to be inclusive?
Cheshvan’s dis-mar-ment also begs a non-prescriptive look at the fraying of friendships. Has the bile of bitter disagreement that corrodes respect for other opinions also eaten away at affection, camaraderie and mutuality of greater purpose? Have conversations become impatient, goading and humorless? For friends holding opposing political perspectives, hadn’t social distancing actually preceded COVID-19? Is it just easier to be with the people with whom we agree?
Will others join me in this movement quietly to “dismar” Cheshvan? Through our individualized efforts, I hope in the non-distant future, Cheshvan will feel better in the remission of at least some of its bitterness.
Saul Golubcow writes from Potomac.