This Hebrew month has the unfortunate nickname Mar Cheshvan, or bitter Cheshvan. (The word Mar means bitter). With the holidays behind us, we now face a long stretch of time unbroken by festivals of any kind. The next holiday won’t come until late November, when we will celebrate Thanskgivakkuh. Without a joyous festival, poor Cheshvan is known as a bitter month. It’s the only Jewish month without a significant feast or fast.
On the one hand, balancing our regular personal and business responsibilities with the slew of chagim each fall can add stress to our lives. Now that stress is over. On the other hand, knowing that these special days are over can be slightly depressing—we have a whole year to wait before that degree of joyous spiritual intensity will come again.
The beginning of Cheshvan is like a giant Jewish Monday morning. Do you have the Monday morning blues? Or did you let out a giant sigh of relief after Simhat Torah? But by now, I feel ready for Cheshvan. That is to say, I find normality alluring at this point in the calendar.
At the day school I direct, so many days off during the first month of school made it hard to establish a routine. Routines for elementary school children are vital. When children know what to expect in each day and in each week, it helps to reduce anxiety and to increase a sense of control that is reassuring. Knowing that we begin each morning together observing our class pet and reciting tefillot, that we’ll have art on Wednesday and bake Challah on Friday is key. Routine creates a rhythm that propels us forward and reassures students, also those from new immigration countries, there is order in their world.
Of course, adults are not so different. Normalcy reduces stress by increasing a sense of order. Having routines is energy-saving, As Beth noted in her earlier post: “Habits help us organize our lives and give it some level of predictability. As humans we are hard wired for homeostasis and habits give us some level of that.”
“Routine gives us basically the required mental liberty to consider the things that are actually important so that way, there’s no need to gave any attention to the mundane facets of life.” Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit’s author says: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Random House) told the Chicago Tribune. ”Relegating all these things to develop a sort of automated thought process allows us to create a mental bandwidth required to deal with the crucial things in our lives…Almost each single species that survived has had the ability for taking routines and make those automatic. That way, they have developed cognitive powers to invent fire, spears, or video games.
Normalcy is both a gift and a spiritual challenge. It’s a gift in that we can, as Duhigg suggests, make room for more creativity because we don’t have to think about whether our Sukkah decorations will get ruined in the rain or about whether we have enough brisket/turkey/meatballs to feed the guests and family, or, alternatively, about how much brisket/turkey/meatballs is too much.
The spiritual challenge of Cheshvan is about integrating elements of kodesh (holiness) inside the chol (the ordinary). It’s one thing to focus on the spiritual on Shabbat and Chagim, but can we find ways to retain that spirituality during the normal weeks filled not with the exceptional but with the humdrum everyday?
I’ve created some questions to focus on this month to help with the post-chag hangover, so to speak. Think about these questions for a few minutes daily, or weekly on Shabbat as they do in residential Jewish Education facilities, when you have a chance to reflect on the week that has passed and the week to come:
•How am I practicing the ideals that we focused on during the Yamim Noraim? In my workdays? Now I’m in my teenage years? At home?
•What routines in my life add my sense of ease and sanity? Do any of my routines need adjustment?
•Do I have a daily–or even weekly–routine that encourages gratitude/reflection/(fill in your own spiritual practice here)?