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Looking forward to Gathering the Waters

The empty month

The moon of Tishrei is waning; we're sliding slowly toward the month of Cheshvan. Cheshvan is remarkable because it contains no Jewish holidays at all (except, of course, for Shabbat, the holiest day of all which comes every blessed week.) After Elul's four weeks of spiritual preparation, and then after Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur and Sukkot and Hoshanna Rabbah and Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the notion of a whole four weeks without holidays can sound like a reprieve (especially for congregational rabbis!)

There's a tradition of calling this month Mar-cheshvan -- the syllable mar means bitter, implying that the month is bitter because it contains no festivals, no sacred opportunities for joy. Though as this resource page on Cheshvan notes, "mar" can also mean a drop of water, so the name Mar-cheshvan might suggest the rains which often fall at this season (in the land of Israel, where they're entering in to the rainy season now, and also in other places -- my home of western Massachusetts being an excellent example!) That Ritualwell page also notes that

Cheshvan comes at the same time as the secular months of October/November. Pumpkins, squash, and gourds have arrived, reminding us of the cycle of planting and harvesting. Nature begins to hibernate, and mirroring this process, we too slow down and turn inward.

At Tel Shemesh, Rabbi Jill Hammer explores the symbolism associated with this month. During Cheshvan we observe the yarzheit (death anniversary) of the matriarch Rachel -- to whom I feel some connction, for reasons which are probably obvious -- and Reb Jill has some beautiful things to say about how Rachel's death can be read as the Shekhinah (immanent divine presence) descending into the earth. In this story, as in the Persephone story which Reb Jill evokes, the descent into the earth holds the promise of eventual return into the light... a powerful teaching at this season of shortening days.

For more earth-based Cheshvan resources, you might check out Ketzirah's Cheshvan: the lesson of Menashe, which looks at the teaching that this month is associated with the tribe of Menashe, son of Joseph, and explores some symbolism of remembering and forgetting.

For me, these last days of Tishrei are days of preparation for the season that's coming. The rugs which adorned our sukkah are draped now over the railing of the deck, slowly drying out from the torrential rains which came at the end of Sukkot; soon I'll tuck them away in the garage. We've ordered three cords of wood for the winter, which Ethan has stacked on our front steps and in the wood crib in the garage. The hills are a motley patchwork of orange and red, green and bare. And I'm looking forward to the quiet of Cheshvan: no big symbolism, no cosmic stories, just a few weeks during which to enjoy the simple joys of everyday life.