Would Marcheshvan by any other name be just as bitter?
Marcheshvan is the Hebrew month that has just concluded. It is popularly seen as the doldrums of the Jewish year. Marcheshvan immediately follows the holiday-packed month of Tishrei, but does not have a singular celebratory day. The name of the month is a slight modification of “Marach Sheman” which means “the eighth month” (see here.) Yet, some see the month as possessing a prefix “Mar” – which can mean bitter, to connote the month’s existence as the epitome of ordinary. The feeling of plainness sometimes pervades the atmosphere of the month. The shofar or Rosh Hashana has long been silenced, the intensity and joy of Yom Kippur seem like a distant memory, and the Sukkah is stored away.
It is common for people to look forward to the next month, Kislev, as a beacon in the perceived gloominess of fall and winter. Chanukah begins in the end of Kislev, so Kislev itself is the harbinger of the Festival of Lights, providing respite from the lethargy of Marcheshvan.
However, you might appreciate an important and essential uniqueness that Marcheshvan has. The holidays of Tishrei are celebratory and exciting, but they also serve another purpose. They distract us from ourselves. When we are focusing on a goal of repentance before Yom Kippur or constructing a Sukkah before Sukkos, we can focus less on the simplicity of our own existence. Holidays serve as diversion from thinking about who we are and our own sense of self. When they end, we need to face ourselves and the complexities of our own personality strengths and weaknesses, our self-esteem or lack of it, and our perhaps underdeveloped self-understanding. The day to day cycle of Marcheshvan and its possible monotony can prompt us to focus on who we are.
Yet, it is sometimes difficult and distressing to turn inward and think about ourselves. It is much easier to be distracted. The bitterness of Marcheshvan is not only because of lack of holidays, but because of the discomfort that sometimes comes from within.
Consequently, the light at the end of the tunnel of Marcheshvan is not only Chanukah, with its happiness and festivity at the very end of the month. A brighter light might come from looking within and examining and exploring our own struggles and strengths, foibles and fortitude, and vulnerability and valiance. There is pleasure not only in lighting – as in Chanukah candles, but from being enlightened – with self-understanding.
Society has allowed us access to many distractions that can fool ourselves into being at peace with not looking inward. These can be very palliative in Marcheshvan-type parts of the year; when we feel uncertain, unsettled, or in pain. Perhaps those situations are better addressed by exploring and trying to understand ourselves rather than diverting our attention.
Kislev is thought of as paving the way toward the glorious days of the Chanukah miracles. Yet, the three and a half ordinary weeks before Chanukah can also stimulate us to spend time with, discover, and try to understand ourselves. There is a sweet opportunity on the heels of a month with a bitter reputation. Greater self-awareness and self-understanding might shed light on our lives, in Marcheshvan-type days, Chanukah-type holidays, and through all the days of the year.