I have in mind a T-shirt I might like to make myself and perhaps some of my rabbinic and cantorial colleagues: T. G. I. CHET. It would stand for Thank G-d It’s Cheshvan. With the New Moon this past Wednesday and Thursday, we have started a new month. Sometimes it’s known as MAR-CHESHVAN or “bitter Cheshvan.” Why bitter? Because it has no major holidays. Why “Thank G-d It’s Cheshvan”? Because of the sweetness some of my clergy friends and I celebrate as we have made it through the heavy lift that is the High Holy Day Season.
If you count the month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah and include the Ten Days of Return until Yom Kippur it was Forty Days of red-letter calendar time; there’s exceptional effort to show up and do TESHUVA; pressure to make good on our promises.
The truth is, that work continues but now, in CHESHVAN, we do it with neither the boost and benefit of big festivals nor the community of far-flung friends and family coming out of the woodwork. CHESHVAN means the rainy season has begun; the days shorten as the nights lengthen; we turn inward; a more hidden, Scorpionic TESHUVA continues. The letter of the month is נון NUN; the falling letter...
We encounter a different Forty Days in this week’s Parsha with stories surrounding Noah’s Ark and the Flood. “All the fountains of the great deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the sky broke open. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.” (Genesis 8:11-12) נִבְקְעוּ כׇּל־מַעְיְנֹת תְּהוֹם NIVKE’U KOL MAYANOT TEHOM RABA, “fountains of the great deep burst apart.” — During this season, our own great depths bubble up. וַאֲרֻבֹּת הַשָּׁמַיִם נִפְתָּחוּ VA’ARUBOT HASHAMAYIM NIFTACHU, “the floodgates of the sky break open.” — Changing colors and strange skylight floods us with sometimes blinding rain. We enter the Word of the Ark and might feel ourselves — fall, autumnal — finite and fragile, our little lives bobbing like a cork on the ever-shifting face of the infinite ocean...
It is so easy to get flooded with sensation, overwhelmed by work, taken away by the world. There is a balm. “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath,” the 19th-century essayist Ahad Ha’am wrote, “the Sabbath has kept Israel.” This sacred seventh day is an antidote to overwhelm.
YOM SHABBATON EIN LISHKOACH. “The day of Shabbat is not something to forget.” Yehudah Halevi, one of the greatest Medival Jewish poets, writes a song and tosses it overboard like a lifesaver. It is sung every Shabbat.
יוֹם שַׁבָּתוֹן אֵין לִשְׁכּוֹחַ
זִכְרוֹ כְּרֵיחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ
יוֹנָה מָצְאָה בוֹ מָנוֹחַ
וְשָׁם יָנוּחוּ יְגִיעֵי כֹחַ.
This day, Shabbat, do not forget
Remember and savor this precious fragrance
On Shabbat, the Dove found her nest
And so too upon it might rest our weariness
“At the end of forty days, Noah opened the window of the ark… and sent out the raven. The raven went to and fro until the waters had dried up from the earth.” Our inner raven stays vigilant, circling the ship. This dark bird — OREV in Hebrew is cognate with EREV, “night” — never finds rest. יֵּצֵא יָצוֹא YEITZEI YATZO surely going out, forever expanding, always seeking, eternally circling. Shabbat is a challenging practice because of the inertia we have to overcome; shifting from Doing to Being isn’t easy. One Midrash teaches that Raven circled because Raven didn’t trust Noah, feeling hated both by God and by humanity alike. Watchful Raven didn’t fly on because Raven didn’t put it past Noah to violate his Raven partner left on the ship! Fear, jealousy, territoriality, envy catches all of us, at times, in a loop, continual vigilance; craving.
Another Midrash doesn’t demonize the Raven in quite the same way. Knowing that it is Raven who later feeds the refugee Elijah the Prophet, Raven is imagined as circling Noah in order to be sent on another mission, LISHLICHUT (see Rashi on Genesis 8:7:2), another errand, urging to be useful. In any case, the Raven is still seeking, still wanting, unable to land.
“Then [Noah] sent out Dove to see whether the waters had decreased from the surface of the ground. וְלֹא־מָצְאָה הַיּוֹנָה מָנוֹחַ VE’LO MATZAH HA’YONAH MANOACH — Dove did not find a place to rest. “...for there was water over all the earth. So putting out a hand, Noah took Dove back into the ark. Noah waited another seven days and sent out Dove again. Dove came back toward evening, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the waters had decreased on the earth. Noah waited still another seven days, sent Dove forth, and Dove did not return anymore.”
The end of the flood, the end of seeking, is imagined by Yehudah Halevi to be on an island; this Island; Shabbat. Abraham Joshua Heschel famously depicts The Sabbath as a cathedral in time. A majestic image, no doubt. But perhaps Shabbat is something more humble; a Fantasy Island. A fragrant haven. A cozy cove for our souls to shelter.
I grew up in Manhattan. I used to disparage the wildlife saying there were only three varieties in New York City: squirrels, rats, and pigeons. Sometimes bemoaned as “rats with wings”, pigeons are unfairly maligned. They are, in fact, Rock Doves. Evolutionarily accustomed to sheer rock faces and craggy highs, they are nearly perfectly adapted to locations with tall buildings. They can find shelter and nest at great heights. I find the cooing of these love birds is particularly soothing.
[Sung] YONATI BECHAGVEI HASELAH, BESETER HAMADREIGAH
“My Dove in the cleft of the rock, on the hidden heights. Let me see your appearance, let me hear your voice. Because your voice is lovely, your appearance comely.” We sing this song to our on love-sick souls that ascend at times to escape the shock and awe of this world. The Dove, the YONAH — the word itself looks like a bird, YOD for a head, VAV its body, NUN the perching legs, HEY the wings and tail feathers — has the olive branch of peace in her mouth.
[Sung] YONAH MATZAH VO MANOACH — the soul finds rest on Shabbat — VESHAM YANUCHU YEGIEI KOAH — and so can our weariness.
May this be a Shabbat of Parshat NOACH bring CHEIN, grace, and MENUCHAH, rest.
May this CHESHVAN, with its storminess and inward depth, be a gateway to falling ever more in love with the inner secrets of our souls.
May we all be able to say “Thank G-d It’s Cheshvan” not only because the heavy lift is over but because the work of being carried on KANFEI HASHECHINAH, the Wings of the Nearest One, isn’t work at all, but rather surrender into being carried on the precious fragrance of this moment.
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