The month of Tishrei, with all of its dramatic and joyful holidays, is basically behind us.
More than one third of that month was filled with holidays - Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succot/Shmini Atzeret/Simhat Torah. If one factors in the days of preparation and effort inherent in the proper observance of these holidays then it is no exaggeration to say that practically the whole month of Tishrei is a holiday month.
But now Tishrei is at an end. The winter season stares us in the face with its times of inclement weather, colds, sniffles and the dreaded flu season. After such a joyous month of Tishrei, the succeeding month of Mar Heshvan is indeed a drab one in comparison. Maybe that is one of the reasons that the name of the month - Heshvan - bears the prefix Mar to its name. One of the meanings of the Hebrew word mar is sad, bitter, depressing. The month of Mar Heshvan is the only month in the Jewish calendar devoid of any holidays or days of special commemoration. Like the deciduous trees of winter that it represents, it stands stripped of any cheering foliage of special days. It just is. And Jewish tradition has assigned to it that role of making do with the mundane, the regular, the unspectacular, the usual nitty-gritty of our lives.
Jewish tradition has therefore always seen in the holidays of Tishrei not a mere temporary series of events for that month alone. One of the reasons that Succot is called in the Torah hag ha'asif - the holiday of harvesting and gathering - is that this refers not only to the harvest time of grain and agriculture but also to the psychological and spiritual harvesting of the bounty of the holidays of Tishrei.
It is also the reason that the day after Simhat Torah is called issru hag, which literally means "bind the holiday sacrifice to the altar." The day after the holiday is to be a day of "binding," a day of connecting the holiness and inspiration of Tishrei to the otherwise seemingly ordinary days of Mar Heshvan. The good resolutions and commitments for self-improvement and national revitalization that characterized our Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur now must find real and practical expression in the everyday behavior of our lives as they take place in the month of Mar Heshvan and succeeding months of the year.
In this sense, one can say that Mar Heshvan is the real test of our sincerity and degree of commitment during the month of Tishrei. In an ironic way, therefore, holiness is much more measurable and even attainable in Mar Heshvan than it was in Tishrei. The proof of the pudding always lies in its eating. A person's holiness and devotion to the principles of Torah - to goodness, kindness, pleasantness and service of God and humans - is not confined to the holidays of the year. It is rather measured in one's behavior on an ordinary Tuesday in Mar Heshvan.
Mar Heshvan also allows us to look ahead to the coming winter season with optimism and strength. We should look at the rain that falls on our holy land as a blessing and not as an inconvenience. The shortness of the day's light and the preponderance of darkness in the winter will only serve to highlight more brightly the lights of Hanukka, that a later month will bring to us. The memories of Tishrei will help us stay warm in the cold of the winter.
Throughout Jewish history, this has always been the case. Though the month of Nissan was traditionally viewed as the month of redemption and hope, it was the month of Tishrei that fueled that hope and inspiration in the long winter of our exile. The power of our prayers and the depth of our joy at being the people of the Torah, which so correctly symbolizes our past Tishrei, serves to strengthen us for all of winter's challenges and grayness. Instead of feeling depressed and saddened by the end of the holiday season, we should feel fortified and resilient since we are able to "bind" unto ourselves all of those positive aspects of Tishrei and carry them with us into all of the coming months of the year. For when all else is accounted for, the greatness of Israel and its Torah are still with us at all times and under all circumstances. That knowledge and comfort alone should be sufficient to sustain us all winter long.
A healthy winter to all.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (rabbiwein.com).