Tradition Today: An ordinary month

If the folk etymology were correct we would have to ask ourselves, "What is so bitter about this month?"

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October 23, 2008 11:08
4 minute read.
Tradition Today: An ordinary month

calendar 88. (photo credit: )

The month we are entering this week, usually called Heshvan, is really Marheshvan. This post-Exilic Babylonian name for the eighth month is thought to be derived from the Assyrian word Arahsammu, meaning the eighth month. Of course the word mar is the Hebrew word for "bitter" and this has caused people erroneously to want to drop the mar, not wanting to associate this month with anything bitter. Thus in all but the most official things, such as the prayer for the new month, we do not call it by its full name but refer to it only as Heshvan. If the popular folk etymology were correct - which it is not - we would have to ask ourselves, "What is so bitter about this month?" No great tragedies occurred then - although the binding of King Zedekiah took place then, and in modern times Kristallnacht and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which are indeed bitter enough. Nevertheless if there is a month that deserves to be called bitter, it would be the month of Av. Some say that the so-called bitterness comes from the fact that there are no special holy days in the month of Heshvan. Poor Heshvan - a month with nothing to celebrate, no reason to rejoice. Yet I suspect that for most of us it is a bit of a relief. We have had so many celebrations, such a prolonged period of holy days that it has really been somewhat of a roller-coaster ride from one festival to another. They have been wonderful, but enough is enough. It's time to settle down and relax. In a sense, the wonderful thing about Heshvan is that there is nothing special about it. Indeed it is in no way bitter. So much for popular etymology. Holidays are wonderful. We need times that are different and that cause special excitement, times that exalt us, that take us away from the ordinary and cause us to focus our attention of matters of greatest importance. But when all is said and done, what life is really all about are exactly the ordinary days when we have to go about our ordinary tasks. Making those days meaningful is the real challenge. If all that mattered were the special days, we would be faced with hundreds of meaningless days. Judaism may make a difference between kodesh v'hol - the sacred and the ordinary - but it certainly does not denigrate the ordinary, the weekday. It does everything possible to make the weekday important and meaningful - even attempting to add a dimension of holiness to it. Consider the idea of holiness. The Torah says kedoshim tihyu - "You shall be holy." When do we feel holiness? On Yom Kippur, on other special days, on Shabbat which is after all Shabbat kodesh. But what about ordinary days? Are they devoid of sanctity? If you look in the Torah portion of Kedoshim, where we are commanded to be holy (Leviticus 19-20), you will find that the section is basically concerned with ordinary things - leaving produce for the poor and the stranger, not stealing, paying a worker his wages, not insulting the deaf, loving your fellow, loving the stranger, keeping correct measures and honest weights. This is not the place where special days are delineated or where special duties to God are spelled out, but rather it outlines how we are to live every day, how we are to treat others. So the message is plain and simple: Holiness is found not in the unusual time or action, but in the everyday way in which we live our lives and in our relations to other human beings. Many of the sages, including Rabbi Akiva and Hillel the Elder believed that the central pillar of all of Judaism was to be found in the verse in this section, "Love your neighbor as yourself." That is the very essence of holiness. Of course Judaism has an entire regimen of things that we are to do daily that remind us of our duties to God. The recitation of blessings and prayers, the observance of dietary laws, are all intended to make the ordinary extraordinary. Indeed in performing many of the mitzvot we recite a blessing that states, "Who has sanctified us by His commandments..." But the "commandments" that make our daily lives meaningful are frequently not those accompanied by a blessing. Many are negative. What we do not do is as important as what we do. Not stealing, not killing, not hurting others, not deceiving, not taking interest, not driving recklessly - these and so many other negative actions are basic to our society. And then there are the positive opportunities - acting lovingly, being charitable, caring for others, visiting the sick, greeting others pleasantly - things large and small that make the difference between a good life and a poor one, to say nothing of an evil one. Most of us are not evil, but we may not be positively good either. Transforming ordinary days into good, meaningful ones is the real challenge. So here we are, entering Heshvan, just an ordinary month, with nothing in it to make us feel special. This is a great opportunity to see if all the festival days we have experienced have made a difference and if we can find a way of living in which each day is special and in which holiness is found in the every day. The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.


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