Friends from the gym asked me to join them at an upcoming Spartan Race. While eager to see if I had the strength and endurance to survive a 5-mile obstacle course, I had to decline because the race will take place on Shabbat. However, after preparing nearly all of the festive meals for last month’s Jewish holiday marathon, I’d say I’ve already proven my grit and stamina.
Don’t get me wrong. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur were meaningful. Sukkot was lovely. Still, I was bone-tired when the season came to an end. I looked forward to resuming the normal flow of family and work routines, the lingering temptation of honey cake leftovers notwithstanding.
There was a time when the quick switch from the holy high of the fall holidays to the busy consistency of our regularly scheduled programming felt like a spiritual letdown. Perhaps it’s because there’s no well-paced denouement. The season just slams to a stop. We bid our sukkahs farewell and days later, head right into Cheshvan, known as the bitter month because it’s the only one on the Hebrew calendar without a holiday or special mitzvah of its own. But I eventually learned that the sudden emptiness can be more comforting than dispiriting.
In many ways, it reminds me of my life when my sons were very young. Blessed, though overwhelmed, by the wonder-chaos of mothering them, I nursed a deep longing for a quiet in which to hear myself think and get some writing done. And yet, when the opportunity presented itself after they’d gone to bed for the night, I’d have no energy left, nor the slightest idea where to start. Often, I’d sit down for the first time since I’d woken up that morning and fall fast asleep on the couch. Turned out it was the silence itself I needed, more than the soul-feeding activities I’d planned to fill it.
Now, when mundane commitments and deadlines come rushing in, flooding the space left behind when the holidays end and the sacred atmosphere of Tishrei begins to dissipate, I no longer feel a sense of loss. It would be impossible — and exhausting — to sustain that level of spiritual intensity, though I’m grateful when traces of it whisper from the shadows a little while longer. I’m glad, too, for the gentler pace of daily religious practice and the tenderness I find in routine rituals and prayers.
Without the mood-inspiring accoutrements or the stirring liturgical melodies that set the stage for the drama of the High Holidays, I also sense God’s presence differently. I know He’s there, of course, but Cheshvan strips our relationship down to the essentials. It’s gentler, less acute. I pick up a new rhythm when I pray and find a different way to talk to Him during this period of downtime.
I consider this now, when the rain we’ve prayed for during the final days of Sukkot — that it should bless the Land of Israel with bounty — begins to fall here in New Jersey. The man who mows our lawn tells me this is the best time to plant a tree — when the foliage goes to bed, before the frost makes the ground impassable. I stash his advice away for future reference, and for the time being, just trim back the bushes, cutting away at the dead branches to ready the garden for winter.
Meanwhile, Cheshvan reminds me that it is in the silence of a garden at rest that the magic happens. Beyond our range of vision, the roots find their security underground. The flora gussy themselves up, preparing to delight us again come spring. We, too, recharge in the lull between the seasons, in the quiet gap between the holidays.
I’m not the first to posit that life is often a strength-and-endurance test of our belief in what we cannot see, in what happens beyond our range of vision. Faith guides us around the dark corners, love and kindness through the empty spaces. And if we can tuck into our hearts what the Yiddish poet Mani Leib calls a “puff of prayer,” pulling it from the last traces of intense holiness that linger from the New Year season, Cheshvan won’t feel bitter at all. Rather, it will give us peace in the wondrous silence, which is exactly what I need about now.
Merri Ukraincik of Edison, N.J., is a regular contributor to the New Jersey Jewish News, where this essay first appeared. Follow her at merriukraincik.com and facebook.com/merri.ukraincik.