These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Cheshvan: The Silence After Love

Posted on November 6, 2016 by Mira Niculescu

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The silence after love: stretching space for all to be.  A Kavannah for the month of Cheshvan

Last Tuesday morning was the first day of Rosh chodesh Cheshvan 5777.

All of us at Pardes, faculty and students, alumni and guests, were invited to a communal morning davening, to welcome in the new month all together.

What does “all together” mean?

At Pardes, some of us are Orthodox, some Egalitarian, some Reform, some Conservative, some Traditionalist, some not so religious, some not sure, and all the nuances in between. And what I love at Pardes is that the stance is, in terms of forming a community, the truth is, it doesn’t matter what denomination we are. What matters is that we are all here because we love Judaism, we want to learn Torah, and we are planning to make spreading it –the love and the Torah- our professional future.

This is our “we”, as I understand it. And this is what makes Pardes a “pluralist” institution:  we come together, not with an ideology of plurality, but with an acknowledgment thereof:  we understand our being diverse as a fact, and we don’t want it to be a hindrance for us to form a community. So our plurality is coming from a deep acceptance of the diversity within, of the fact that we are different from one another as Jews.

So on regular days we each have our own minyanim (mechitza, Egal, Reform, etc.). But on that day, for Rosh Chodesh, we all came as a community to pray together.

This required concessions from each side: in the Beit Midrash where we prayed, there were parts of mechitza and parts without, men leading and also women, men with Tallitot and women too. And I’m sure many of us were out of their comfort zone in this spatial and symbolic setting.

But what we had managed to do that morning, and what I found very beautiful, is that we had managed to stretch symbolic space in order to include all sensibilities, just for the sake of being together.

During services, I was to give a short Kavannah meditation/Dvar Torah between Shacharit and Mussaf.  So it was, again, about stretching space to create more space –here, carving a space for introspection in the midst of prayer, a space for silence in the midst of words – I was to invite people to do a Hashkata, the “quieting” meditation technique of the Aish Kodesh, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro of the Warsaw Ghetto.

And this variation on space: us carving space for each other, and me carving space in the midst of that space, was actually very fitting with the kavannah, the intention I wanted to offer that morning: I was planning to speak about Cheshvan as “space”.

Cheshvan, as you may now, is the only month in the Jewish calendar in which we don’t celebrate a Jewish Holiday. This is why it is oftentimes called “mar Cheshvan”, the “bitter” Cheshvan; as if it was sad that we have nothing to celebrate this month.

But, on the contrary, I suggested: Cheshvan is so full, so beautiful: it is a gift of space.

It is the space we are given so that the whole process of Ellul, and of Tishrei can keep unfolding through their echo. The space for all the prayers and selichot, all the words of Teshuva, the shofar blows and the Neila tunes, all the “and you shall rejoice in your festival” songs under the sukkah, and all the Simchat Torah exultation, don’t vanish in a wink from the space of our consciousness, as they would be replaced by more shopping, more cooking, more planning, more focusing on “the next holiday”.

After all the intensity and the beauty of the Elul and Tishrei process, how could Cheshvan be vocal?

How could we have anything to add, right after this whole process? And most of all, how could we actually experience its effect, if we moved on immediately after?

It seems to me that this whole process of chagim, the spiritual climax it brings us to, would almost be cancelled, suddenly forgotten, if another holiday was to follow immediately.

This is why to me, the “void” of Chesvan, the silence of Chesvan, is such a precious gift. After Elul and Tishrei, Cheshvan is the beautiful space stretched for us, so that all these sounds and prayers can resonate through us and have their transformative power move through us. It is the space for their beautiful echo to unfold and reverberate.

It is the silence after love.

When the climax of union has been reached, and there isn’t anything to add. This silence, this space of stillness, is perhaps the most eloquent, the most creative of all.

It is the same silence that we are invited to feel at seudah shlishit, the third Shabbat meal, when the body and soul are so full-filled that there is nothing more to add. Just to listen. Just to feel. Just to receive the waves of the bliss of union that keep reverberating, long after the actual moment has vanished.

We are not the only ones to have understood the wisdom of opening a time-space of “emptiness” after action. In Yoga, the final pose is a resting pose. One just lies down and does nothing. Perhaps fall asleep. All we “do” is rest from the physical intensity that just occurred. So much so that some would be tempted to skip this one. But on the contrary, Yoga teachers remind us, Savasanna may be the most powerful pose: it is the key that brings together everything that has just happened. It is in this rest, in this non-doing, that the body integrates all the power it has just received and co-generated. So it goes physiologically: when it comes to bodily nourishment, eating would be useless, if the body didn’t have the space-time to digest the food: to process.

Space, silence, non-doing, which we tend to neglect because they bear nothing apparent, are actually our most precious, most creative moments: they are the space for processing.

This is why I see Cheshvan as such a precious month, the time of a sacred space: the space that allows us to process the Holiness and wholeness of Elul and Tishrei, and to let their power unfold through us and continue moving us in the directions our prayers were taking, for the new year.

Cheshvan, this month without a holiday, is not a month without the sacred, it is a month made of the sacred, that it conveys in an echo.  So if Heschel called the Shabbat a palace in time, perhaps Cheshvan can be seen a palace of time: a palace made of the texture of time itself.

This is what I shared that morning with the Pardes community: a kavannah that we may open ourselves to the gift of Cheshvan. A gift of a space wide open for us all.

We can receive so much if only we make space. And coming together as a community that morning, I think this is just what we did.

Mira Neshama Niculescu