By Mira Neshama Niculescu
On Elul our anticipation grows, as we hear the shofar blow every morning in the synagogues, as we hurry to examine our deeds, as we call each other to say “I’m sorry”, and “I love you.” Then comes the two days where we celebrate the birthday of the world. As the month of Tishri triumphally starts, the doors of the sky open, we crown the source of life as king of the world, and we dip apples in honey, wishing each other a year of “goodness” and of “sweetness.” Just about ten days later, we all dress in white, rehearsing our death while calling for our rebirth, on the day of atonement, yom ha kippurim. When the night comes after that long journey throughout which we’re prayed to be inscribed in the book of life, we’re barely still drinking our warm tea after the fast, that it’s time to start planting the first pole of the booth we are getting ready to inhabit for seven days, resting under the palms through which we see the stars, feeling both our vulnerability and our gratitude towards the source of life whose natural bounty is everywhere around us. Sukkot, the festival of booth, ends on our celebration of receiving the Torah, as we start again the first line of the first chapter of the first book of the chumash (Pentateuch), “bereshit” – at the beginning.
And then it’s time for the new moon, and a new month comes in: Cheshvan. And there… nothing.
Silence. No events.
While there is a Jewish festival or holiday or celebration or commemoration every month of the Jewish calendar, Cheshvan is the only “bare” month, the only stretch of Jewish time during which nothing happens. Until Chanukah will come invite us to light the candles of hope in the pitch dark of winter, we still have a long time to go. We’re barely starting the Indian summer. And Cheshvan looks like an empty space of time. Especially in comparison with Elul and Tishri, which were so full, so intense, building up, till the holy climax of Simchat Torah… and then… nothing.
This emptiness is the reason why some call it “Mar Cheshvan,” the “bitter” month of Cheshvan. As if it was sad that we have nothing apparent to celebrate this month. Yet, I want to suggest that it’s just the opposite: this silence of the month of Cheshvan, this emptiness, is such a blessing.
First of all, after all the intensity and the beauty of this two months process, how could Cheshvan have anything to add? How could Cheshvan be vocal? But more deeply, the silence of Cheshvan is just what we need, in order to process everything that we’ve just been through.
Cheshvan is a gift of silence.
It is the space we are given so that the whole spiritual process of Elul and of Tishri can keep unfolding in us through its own echo. It is the space for all the prayers and selichot, all the words of Tshuva, all the shofar blows and the Neila tunes, all the “and you shall rejoice” songs under the sukkah, and all the Simchat Torah exultations, to keep reverberating within us, instead of vanishing in a wink from the space of our consciousness, as they would be replaced by more shopping, more cooking, more planning, if we were focusing already on “the next holiday.”
How could we actually experience the effect of Elul and Tishri, if we were to move on right after? It seems to me that this whole process of chagim, the spiritual climax it brings us to, would almost be canceled, forgotten, if another holiday was to follow immediately.
Cheshvan is the gift of silence that enables the rich interweaved echo of the chagim to keep unfolding.
This is why to me, the “void” of Cheshvan, the silence of Chesvan, is such a precious gift. After the fullness and intensity of Elul and Tishri, it is a gift of space.
The new moon of Cheshvan opens for us a beautiful space stretched far and wide so that all these sounds and prayers can resonate through us and have their transformative power move through us. It is the space for their beautiful echo to unfold and reverberate.
It is the silence after love.
This silence, this space of stillness, is perhaps the most eloquent, the most creative of all.
It is the same silence that we are invited to feel at seudah shlishit, the third Shabbat meal, when the body and the soul are so fulfilled that there is nothing more to add. Just to listen. Just to feel. Just to receive, the waves of the bliss of the union that keeps reverberating, long after the actual moment has vanished.
So it goes physiologically: when it comes to bodily nourishment, eating would be useless, if the body didn’t have the space-time to digest the food: to process it.
This is why space, silence, non-doing, which we tend to neglect because they bear nothing apparent, are actually our most precious, most creative moments: they are the space for processing.
This is why I see Cheshvan as such a precious month. It is the time of a sacred space: the space that allows us to process the Holiness and wholeness of Elul and Tishri, so it can start transforming into energy within us, for a whole new cycle of year.
Cheshvan, this month without a holiday, is not a month without the sacred. It is a month made of the sacred, which echo it conveys to us.
If Heschel called Shabbat a Palace in time, perhaps Cheshvan can be seen as a Palace of time: a Palace made of the texture of time itself.
We can receive only if we make space. May we, as Hakhel community members, as space holders for people from all Jewish backgrounds and all paths of life, take time also to make space within us, and to receive, so that we can better give.
Mira Niculescu is the founder of Neshama, a Jewish spirituality project started in Paris in 2014. Since 2013 she has taught Chassidic meditation and Torah internationally and contributes regularly to the online French Jewish website Akadem, to Tenou’a and to the Times of Israel through her blog. A former board member of Limmud France, she is a Nahum Goldman Fellowship and Junction community member. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the EHESS in Paris on Jews and Meditation.