From Rabbi Amitai Adler (November 2015)
We’re coming into the month of November, and it’s a lovely, quiet lull in the Jewish calendar. The six or seven weeks between the start of the month of Cheshvan, after the High Holidays and Sukkot/Shmini Atzeret are over (at the beginning of October, this year) and the 24th of the next month of Kislev, when Chanukah begins (second week of December, this year) are without holidays altogether.
This disturbed some of our Rabbis, who became accustomed to referring to Cheshvan as Mar Cheshvan (“Bitter Cheshvan”), since it is empty of festivals, after the plethora of festivals we celebrate in Tishrei.
But I actually appreciate this festival-free stretch, because I think it gives us an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with finding spirituality in the everyday.
It’s easy to be spiritually swept away by festivals, especially the majesty and gravitas of the Days of Awe, and the unabashed joyfulness of Sukkot. It’s much more of a challenge—but a potentially very helpful and productive challenge—to remind ourselves that the numinous is not only to be found in the extraordinary, but in the absolutely ordinary.
Every day brings us the opportunity to speak with God in prayer; to take note of the miracles of existence and the wonders of nature and human life by saying brachot (blessings); to renew our spirits through doing mitzvot; and to rediscover that the reflection of the Divine is to be found in every human soul with which we come in contact, every human soul on the planet. The question is not whether those wonders, those Divine sparks, those amazing opportunities exist for us, but whether we will take note of them.
I may also be influenced in my love of this stretch of time because Autumn is my favorite season. I love the Fall fruits and vegetables, the return to my kitchen of soups and stews and hearty casseroles. I love the cleanness of the crisp air as chill begins to turn to cold. I love watching the trees, the animals, the whole of nature preparing for winter, modeling for us that what seems to be the death of living things—leaves falling, grasses and small plants shriveling, animals preparing to hibernate or migrate or retreat to hidden dens, and so on—is only a tzimtzum, a contraction of life into small stillness, until Spring returns and draws life again out of its seeming absence. I even love the rain and the wind, and the eventual turn to snow and ice as Winter begins.
In one of my favorite psalms, Halleluyah ki tov zamrah elohenu (Ps. 147), it says, ‘anu l’Hashem b’todah, zamru l’elohenu b’chinor, ha-m’chaseh shamayim b’avim, ha-machin la’aretz matar, ha-matzmiyach harim chatzir (“Sing out to Hashem in thanksgiving, sing to our God with the harp! He Who covers the heavens with clouds, Who gathers rain for the earth, Who sows the mountains with grass!”), a good them for Autumn. The same psalm continues later, ha-notein sheleg ka-tzamer, k’for ka-eifer y’fazer, mashlich karcho ch’fitim, lifnei karato mi ya-amod (“He Who gives forth snow like wool, Who scatters frost like ash, Who sends forth His ice like crumbs of dough: who can stand before His cold?”), a poetry of Winter that could resonate with any Midwesterner. The same sort of themes get reflected in the following psalm, also one of my favorites: eish u’varad, sheleg v’kitor, ruach se’arah oseh d’varo (“...lightning and hail, snow and chill fog, the stormy winds, all are doing His bidding.”)
Poetry like that reminds us that even in those natural events we take for granted—or even sometimes complain about—we can still see the magnificence and elegance of God’s handiwork around us. If we are only open to seeing it, the world (as the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it) “is charged with the glory of God.”
And if we can see it and recognize it, there are brachot to be said upon it all. And every memory of it, every awareness of it, can be spiritual fuel to feed the fire of our tefillot (prayers).
These phenomena aren’t part of a ritual or liturgical cycle. They are simply the everyday life of the world around us, our own daily existence. This lull in the Jewish calendar is our great opportunity to dive into the wonder and beauty of unadorned normality.
I hope we can all find chances to do so.
Rabbi Amitai Adler