This month is the month of Cheshvan, and it has a unique standing in the Jewish calendar. It’s the only month in the Jewish year that doesn’t contain a day of significance. Whether it’s a holiday or a fast day, such as Tisha b’Av, we consider these days to be significant in that they prompt us toward celebration or introspection. To have an entire month without any of these prompts certainly makes that month stand out.
Historically, this might be considered a month of sadness, since it is the month in which our matriarch, Rachel, dies while giving birth to her son Benjamin. And yet within that moment of loss lies a moment of hope. Although Rachel succumbs and dies, Benjamin is born and another tribe is added to the nation of Israel.
The month of Cheshvan has similarities to the loss of Rachel. According to the midrash, Cheshvan is the month in which Noah’s flood began. Ten generations after the world was created, God destroys everything with a flood, saving only Noah, his family and the animals that were inside the ark he built. While destruction was raging outside, hope for the future was cocooned inside the ark, which carried within it the seeds of a new world.
Similar to Rachel the matriarch who was suffering the anguish of losing her life while simultaneously bringing new life into the world, the ark represents the womb bringing new life into the world as loss of life surrounds it. In fact, the 40 days and nights of rain can be seen as paralleling the 40 weeks of gestation, which combines the two images even more strongly.
Yet because the month of Cheshvan doesn’t designate a particular date within it to commemorate either Rachel’s death or the start of the flood, it remains our decision as to where we put our focus. We could spend the month focusing on negative aspects of our lives, connecting with the event of Rachel’s death, or we could focus on future opportunities, connecting with Noah’s Ark.
The midrash teaches us of deeper moments of opportunity within the Noah narrative. Apparently it takes Noah 120 years to build the ark. During those years, people would ask him what he was doing, and he had the opportunity to convince them of what was going to happen and that they should join him. During these 120 years Noah failed to convince even one person. He failed to effect change or influence anyone around him. These great opportunities were not actualized, and that’s why, according to the midrash, the flood is referred to as “the waters of Noah.”
Cheshvan, the month following the High Holidays, is the month of choice and opportunity. We choose our focus and either commit ourselves to seizing opportunities for change or we actively miss them. By not having a specific day of significance, the choice is left to us.
Rachael Turkienicz is director of Rachaelscentre.org.