It’s Rosh Chodesh (the first day of a new month) today, which in our neighborhood means kids in white shirts (frantically washed and dried on the night before if you’re anything like me…), festive prayers, and that nice feeling of “Ooo, we are starting something new today!”
Many children dislike the month of Cheshvan (we tend to drop the “Mar” part) since it doesn’t include any major holidays. I was lucky – it’s the month of my birth, so I always had what to look forward to anyway. As an adult, though, I don’t need my birthday celebrations to make this month special. I actually like the idea of a quiet time between the dizzying High Holidays (just how many festive meals did we sit down for, again??) and the ruckus of Hanukkah next month. It’s a time to take all those lofty new year’s resolutions and apply them in daily life, sans distractions.
That said, Cheshvan isn’t devoid of significant dates. They may not be of the flashy time-off-school-and-let’s-eat variety, but they can still be meaningful times of reflection, as well as opportunities to converse and connect with our kids. Here is a partial list of what we have to look forward to this month:
The 7th of Cheshvan: Rain and Diaspora Jewry (11/8/2016)
The 7th of Cheshvan is the day on which we start praying for rain in earnest. Prayer for rain is particularly meaningful in Judaism. Rain, say our sages, is one of the three “keys” which God administers to the world by Himself (and not through someone else), along with birth and death (Mishna, Ta’anit, 2:1). Somehow, these three experiences go beyond the normal flow of human life, and bring us face to face with our own helplessness. On this day, I like to meditate on the limits of my control, and to teach my kids that’s it’s OK to need help.
(For more about rain, prayer, and the power of helplessness, read here.)
This year, the organization DOMIM (a cooperation between the Reform Movement and Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs) and the Israeli Religious-Zionist organization Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah suggested to infuse the 7th of Cheshvan with yet another meaning. The reason we only start praying for rain on the 7th, as DOMIM’s site explains, is “to ensure that Jewish pilgrims from Babylon who had been visiting the Land of Israel (for Sukkot) would be able to return home without having rain fall on them during their journey.”
This consideration illuminates the mutual respect and historic partnership between Israel and the Jews of the diaspora. We helped and supported each other for millennia, and despite the tensions between us today – or perhaps because of them – it’s more important than ever to remember what we are to each other. As of this year, many Jews plan to do so on the 7th of Cheshvan, newly named “Diaspora Israel Day”.
My children are fortunate to know and love many people both in Israel and in the US, their father’s birthplace. This year I will challenge them to go beyond our personal familial relationships and think about the great things we can learn from diaspora communities in general.
The 11th of Cheshvan : Rachel Imenu’s Day of Passing (11/12/2016)
Our matriarch Rachel passed away en route to Jacob’s homeland. Our prophets and sages described her as the guardian and advocate of all the Jews away from home: The exiled, the lost, and the spiritually starving. “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping;” declares the prophet Jeremiah. “Rachel weeps for her children, and refuses to be comforted, for her children, who are gone.” (Jeremiah 31:15)
God rejects similar pleas from the patriarchs, Moses, and Aaron, explain our sages in a beautiful midrash. But he can’t ignore Rachel. She forces Him to recall her own conduct when her family wronged her. When her father gave her sister Leah to Jacob instead of her, Rachel could foil his plans. She and Jacob suspected foul play in advance and agreed upon a set of signs to use during the ceremony to verify Rachel’s identity. But Rachel didn’t want her sister to be humiliated, and so, despite her pain and jealousy, disclosed the signs to Leah.
“If I, a mere human, could set my jealousy and anger aside,” Rachel tells God, “can’t You?”
And so, continues Jeremiah, God relents, and agrees to forgive and help Rachel’s children. “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is reward for your effort, says God. And they shall return from the land of the enemy. And there is hope for your future…and the children shall return to their border.”
My children are alive today because God kept his promise to Rachel, and brought together Jews from Russia, Poland, Ukraine and the US. This year I will ask them why our sages link this miracle to simple kindness out of all things, and what it means for us.
The 12th of Cheshvan: Rabin’s murder (11/13/2016, but marked in Israel on November 4th):
Twenty one years ago a Jewish assassin murdered Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Three gunshots shook Israel to the core and raised painful questions regarding political violence, democratic values, and our society’s ability to work through disagreements.
Israeli schools will discuss these topics on November 4th and the 12th of Cheshvan, but that doesn’t excuse us as parents from emphasizing the same messages. Learning to talk instead of attacking begins as early as kids fight over toys. And as the United States is torn by the most vicious election season most of us can remember, it’s more important than ever to discuss violence, democracy, and the foundations of civil society.
There are many other hidden gems in Cheshvan’s seemingly lackluster calendar. This year, for example, we can celebrate the end of the 2016 elections, which many feel couldn’t come soon enough. What are your favorite Cheshvan highlights, and how do you plan to mark them?
Chodesh Tov and a happy return to the post-holidays routine!