Rosh Chodesh Marcheshvan is a special day for me – specifically it is the date on our Ketubah recording our chuppah (Jewish wedding)– and in my eagerness to be observant on that day and I remember being slightly disappointed that the traditional wedding day fast in order to be cleansed of all ‘sin’ was overridden by the nature of the day.
I remember too the debate about the name of the month – would one write Cheshvan or Marcheshvan on the wedding document? The month may be free from festivals, but it was the beginning of our marriage – surely we couldn’t call the month “bitter Cheshvan” on that basis?
The eighth month in our calendar, it may have come to us through the Akkadian/Babylonian language, and simply be a description of its place in the year, with m’rach sh’van corresponding to “eighth month”. Certainly the longer name of Marcheshvan is the one used in the Mishnah and in Talmudic texts, and the great rabbinic commentators Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Maimonides all give it this name, rather than the shorter Cheshvan. And yet somewhere we lost that certainty and all sorts of traditions have grown up to explain why the month Cheshvan apparently has the prefix Mar. As I referred to earlier, the word can mean ‘bitter’ – leading to the idea that since this is a month with no celebrations at all, it is a bitter month. Others take the idea that Mar means a drop of water, and so see it as the word reminding us that in Cheshvan the rains must fall if we are to have good harvests and fill the aquifers, rivers and lakes in Israel. Yet others see it as a prefix denoting respect – we respect the beginning of our new lives post the festival marathon of Rosh Hashanah – Yom Kippur –Sukkot – Shemini Atzeret –Simchat Torah. Just as we want to live lives where we gain respect from others for our good actions, so we respect the month where we begin in earnest to live our ordinary lives as best we can. There are many midrashim on the subject of MarCheshvan, and also about its other biblical name ‘Bul’, but this year something else struck me. The name Cheshvan written
Could come from the Hebrew root חוש meaning “to make haste” or more likely from חשה meaning “to be silent, or inactive”.
I have been thinking a lot about prayer recently, and about how we speak prayer and how we listen, how we actively seek connection with God and how we sometimes allow ourselves just to be, waiting through all the busyness and distractions of our lives for what in the First Book of Kings (19:12) is called ק֖וֹל דְּמָמָ֥ה דַקָּֽה:
“The still small voice” or rather better – “the voice of slender silence”
Silence and contemplation can give great rewards in a prayer life. Time to reflect, to quieten the activity in our minds, to let go of all the “shoulds” and “musts” and imperatives of getting things done fast, no time wasted, hurry hurry hurry…..
The naming of Cheshvan seems to be a dissonance – the haste implied in one possible verbal root, the quietness and inaction in the other.
Add to that the water – bitter or otherwise – drip drip dripping into our consciousness, both life giving and life destroying – particularly when read in conjunction with parashat Noach, and Chesvan seems to be a deliberate puzzle. Are we to be still and hear the voice of God, are we to be active in God’s work? Are we to make haste or to make space and time?
Noah himself is a puzzle – he never speaks to God, he never speaks to the population whom he knows will be destroyed. He never argues for the living, nor warns them, nor engages with them in any way. Instead he makes haste to do what God has asked him. He is both silent and hasty, actively creating the Ark, but entirely passive in the ethical or societal aspects of the narrative.
I have never felt comfortable with Noah. Even though this was my batmitzvah portion, I found the man himself unpleasant, I could not bring myself to identify with his story and this used to bother me a great deal.
Until this year when, like many other women across the world I found myself writing #metoo on my social media.
The idea was that “If everyone who has been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too.” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Please copy/paste. #metoo”
The idea came about after the Harvey Weinstein exposure, to help provide support for victims, so they would know that they were not suffering alone in this, to try to prevent the backlash of victim blaming that rapidly appeared.
#metoo appeared all over the timelines of me and my friends and of men and women all over the world, and indeed the magnitude of the problem became clear for all to see. Many debates began – what counts as sexual assault? What counts as harassment? Were women being hypersensitive? Where were the men who didn’t seem to notice what was the everyday experience of so many women? Who were the men who were harassing women? How come the women had not spoken out before? What was the conspiracy of silence that allowed men to abuse their power over women, the open secrets that were simply not discussed?
And it hit me – the silence, the inactivity, which I often experience as a positive in my spiritual life suddenly had a different force – it became the silencing of the voices of victims, the inactivity surrounding the open secrets, the weapon of choice to enable the rich, powerful and protected to continue in their self-serving behaviour. It is the silence surrounding modern slavery and human trafficking when we buy clothes unrealistically cheaply, the real price paid by the factory workers who toil for long hours for very little reward. It is the silence surrounding the lack of a living wage for many people in this country, the silence surrounding the need for food banks and people who have to choose to be warm or to be fed – or even more stark choices around keeping a roof over their heads. It is the silence around domestic abuse and the routine and everyday harassment of women. I could go on and on about what we keep silent about, not because we don’t know but because we don’t want to know and talking about it will make it more real to us.
Cheshvan is the eighth month of the year – symbolically seven plus one, completion plus one – it is the beginning again. In so many ways we are at the start of something where we can change the world if only we stopped our silence and made haste for justice. Noah is a salutary example – he kept his silence and the world drowned. Yes there was a new beginning, but that beginning was steeped in regret for a past that had not been resolved, merely suppressed and hidden in the depths.
Our voices do not have to be loud but they have to be heard. We need to speak out and we need to listen to the voices of those who have hidden their voices or whose voices have been suppressed by people more powerful than them.
Cheshvan is the time for us to challenge ourselves on when we are silent positively in order to hear the voice of God in the world, and when we stop being silent in order for God’s voice to speak out in the world. It is, we discover, the same voice. Beginning again doesn’t have to mean washing away the past as if it never existed; it means acknowledging the faults of the past and confronting them, working for change, creating a world which is better for our living in it. Last week we read of God asking Cain “where is your brother” and saying “the bloods of your brother are crying out to me from the ground”. Now as we reach Cheshvan and read the story of the generation of Noah it is time to hear the cries of those unjustly paying the price for the corruption of others more powerful than they, time to give the answer to Cain’s disingenuous response “am I my brother’s keeper?”
We are human beings, responsible for each other, responsible to care for each other, responsible for whistle-blowing improper behaviour, for calling out the power plays that make so many miserable.
As #metoo swept across social media, many protested that they did not know. We know now. And it is time to make haste, time break the silence. A new beginning as we read about a new creation after the cleansing out of the corruption and abuses of power that had been tolerated for far too long.