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'Bitter' month a chance to recreate holiness

The natural pathway of all life experiences begins with inspiration and soon fades to disappointment.

The natural pathway of all life experiences begins with inspiration and soon fades to disappointment. We've all had moments of clarity accompanied by a sense of meaning and purpose only to have this inner light slowly and inevitably fade into the background of everyday life. As we turn the page in the Jewish calendar from the month of Tishrei to the month of Cheshvan the stark reality of "normal life" hits us like a train.

Last month, the month of Tishrei, can quite easily be considered the highlight of the Jewish year. We began with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and concluded with eight festive days of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. It's a month of celebration, meaning, and introspection. It's a month of reverence, awe, and joy. We've now entered the month of Cheshvan, also referred to as MarCheshvan, the bitter month of Cheshvan. Why do our sages refer to Cheshvan as the bitter month? Because it's completely bereft of days of significance, there are no holidays to be celebrated no history to be commemorated, just the fading light of Tishrei as we enter the dark winter months ahead.

What is the meaning of this darkness? And let's be honest, this is not only a question for the Jewish people, this is a question for all mankind. Why does our inspiration seem to come and go without rhyme or reason?

Rabbi Akiva Tatz writes about this fundamental question in his book Living Inspired and there he describes a pattern deeply ingrained in the very fibres of creation. This pattern is made up of three primary elements and in short can be summarized as moments of inspiration, phases of exertion, and experiences of transcendence. He describes the first stage as the point of beginning. It's the transition from nothing to something. It is the pristine flash of energy which begins any process. Stage two is the process itself, the condensing of creative energy into tangible form. It is the expansion of the flash of beginning into finite form. He explains that initially these two energies seem to be paradoxical and antithetical. The first is related to infinity, the second finite. This leads us to the mystery of the third stage; the resolution of this cosmic tension. The third element is the harmony of opposites; but its mystery and magic are that at a deeper level it reveals that in fact there never was a conflict. He continues and explains this concept in terms of emotions. The first element is essentially pleasurable; it contains the thrill of new creation. The second necessarily involves work and pain; it contains the pain of infinite potential shrinking to finite proportions. The third is true, mature human joy. It is the happiness of the resolution of doubts, the depth of emotion felt upon understanding why what seemed to be cruelty was in fact kindness. It is the joy of well-earned reward.

With these concepts I believe we can begin to unlock our questions. Inspiration, by very definition, is fleeting. We're moved for mere moments, given the gift of clarity and the sense of meaning, and then it's taken from us. It's not accidental, it's the process. As we move to the phase of effort we're called upon to recreate our euphoria, to utilize the divine gifts we've been given to create for ourselves that which was given for free. Upon completion of this phase we can look back with understanding and know how vital this stage of self creation was. Stage three has been experienced when we see the wisdom in the darkness that pushed us towards growth.

The month of Cheshvan is termed bitter as a description of the hard work and toil we must undertake to recreate the sense of holiness and closeness given to us, free of charge, in the holiday laden month of Tishrei.

Barak Cohen is the rabbi at Congregation Aish HaTorah and the Jewish chaplain at the University of Victoria. He can be reached at


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