The transition could not be more abrupt.
Behind us is the month of Tishrei — the busiest, most eventful, ritually richest month of the entire year.
Before us is the month of Cheshvan, exceptional only in its “ordinariness.”
Nothing happens in Cheshvan; there are no festivals, no fasts, no unique mitzvot. Cheshvan is the only month of the year with nothing “special” of its own; the only month of the year marked by total ritual silence.
Why the stark contrast? Why does Jewish tradition mandate a calendar “roller coaster” as our year begins? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to follow the majestic Yamim Noraim (“Days of Awe”), the vibrant festival of Sukkot, the joyous ecstasy of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, with at least some ritual afterwards, some unique observances designed to carry the messages of these days forward? As we begin our year, the silence of Cheshvan seems deafening.
And yet, upon consideration, our calendar makes complete sense …
As we move away from the rarefied atmosphere of the chagim (“holidays”), Cheshvan provides the one missing piece. The month confronts us with the only challenge that Tishrei could not issue: the challenge of transforming the “ordinary” into the “extraordinary.”
Cheshvan silently asks us: Will you make my quiet days count? Will you convert commitment into concrete action when the drama disappears? Will the lessons of the Tishrei’s events continue to teach you? Will you make my ordinary days extraordinary?
Consider the following analogy. I have always felt that the most significant moment of the Revelation at Sinai was the moment of our departure from the mountain. At that instant, God issues a challenge: If you leave this site carrying the Torah with you, then all that has occurred at Sinai will have been proven worthwhile. In contrast, if you leave (in the words that your sages will one day use) “as a child running away from school,” then you will have experienced a powerful “sound and light show,” but little else.
Similarly, Cheshvan determines the value of Tishrei. Our yearly revelatory experience in God’s presence is over. Tekiat Shofar, Kol Nidrei, Unetaneh Tokef, Neila, Yeshiva B’Sukkah, Na’anuim, Hakafot and so much more are now events of the past. The very value of these events, however, will now be determined in the quiet days of Cheshvan. Will the lessons learned and the perspective gained during the extraordinary moments of Tishrei shape the ordinary days of Cheshvan and beyond in tangible ways?
While the answer to this question will be deeply personal for each of us, allow me to share, by way of example, some of the lessons that I am considering this year for Cheshvan and beyond.
I hope that the wordless plea of Tekiat Shofar will remind me that sometimes words can be unnecessary, meaningless, even hurtful; that, at times, the most dramatic communication can be the silent sharing that comes from the heart. Our tradition shows great wisdom, for example, when it mandates that during a shiva visit, the visitor should initially remain silent, allowing the mourner to speak first. And if the mourner does not speak, then neither should we. Too often, uncomfortable with silence, we attempt to fill the vacuum with words when silence can be the most comforting communication of all.
I hope that the power of Kol Nidrei will further remind me that words, once spoken, have their own life and independent power. Our preoccupation with the nullification of vows before (I refer to the practice of Hatarat Nedarim, the nullification of vows, that is performed during the days from Erev Rosh Hashanah until Erev Yom Kippur) and at the onset of the holiest day of our year is telling. We desperately desire, it seems, to “take back” at least those wrongful words that we legally can. What, however, about the words that we cannot nullify? Words spoken in anger, upset and unfeeling haste. Words that we regret later—in fact, sometimes right after they are spoken. Too late! Those words have already found their mark. No apology or expression of regret can totally erase their utterance. How much better we would all be if we think before we speak.
I hope that the emotions that washed over me at an unexpected moment on Yom Kippur will remind me that not everything can be planned; that sometimes the most powerful experiences are the ones that are unanticipated. I am often struck by the difference between my memories and those of my children. Experiences that I thought would be most powerful for them are often not, while the unexpected moments are the ones they recall. The impact of carefully planned trips and well-laid out itineraries sometimes pales in their minds to the spontaneous “pickup game “on the street or story told on the couch by a parent or grandparent. This reality gives lie to the popular argument: I’m too busy to be around much, but I make sure to spend “quality time” to my children and grandchildren. What our children really need is not “quality time,” but as much time as we can give them because we can never really know the moments that they will remember.
These are a few of the thoughts that course through my mind as I remember the rich days of Tishrei behind us and consider the silent days of Cheshvan ahead.
For I firmly believe that by carrying Tishrei’s lessons with us, we can each make the ordinary days of Cheshvan — and those of the entire year — extraordinary. JN
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J., and past president of the Rabbinical Council of America. He currently lives in Jerusalem. This article originally appeared on JNS.org.