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As I write these words the holiday season has passed and the Jewish calendar rocks along with the work week and Shabbat for a while. While this month is called Heshvan there’s an old tradition of calling this month MarHeshvan, which literally means “bitter Heshvan” — not a very nice thing to call this month! What did Heshvan do to deserve this tribal disrespect?
The quick Rabbinic take is that Heshvan feels empty; there are no holidays in it. Imagine Heshvan being the nondescript next-door neighbor to Tishrei, that month which is overflowing with Festivals! If you were plain old Heshvan, how would you feel?
OK, let’s step back from this cute explanation for a minute. For starters (speaking as a Jewish professional), Tishrei is both delightful and exhausting. Yes, there are interesting reasons behind Tishrei serving as a kind of spiritual charging station but still — most folks are spent after the crowded Tishrei experience. Are rabbis and cantors and teachers feeling bitter about Heshvan? Um, no.
A quick foray into Wikipedia yields up some interesting arcana about Hebrew’s long extinct Near-Eastern cousins and how the construction of MarHeshvan (one word) came to be (no, it’s not at all about an embittered covetous month). I’m not entering the linguistic weeds with you, but, for the etymologically adventurous sleuth-nerds among you (yes, you know who you are…), check out Wikipedia; it’s cool.
Speaking of cool, my Berkeley sister, Judy, just taught me something new (as she is wont to do) about Heshvan. In her Jewish circles, people don’t say Mar (bitter) Heshvan; let’s face it, that
particular drash feels spent. Instead, they reverse the letters of Mar ( מ ,) ר opting for Ram (meaning “powerful!”) Heshvan. Tishrei and all of its holy days did indeed charge my batteries, but I must admit that as I look around, I see so many broken pieces within the world around me — a heavy cultural malaise, normalized violence, normalized hatred, grinding wars, political paralysis, disenfranchisement — it is an exhausting and dispiriting list of brokenness. So, I reach out and hope and pray for strength. We need strength to fix the world, to make things better for each other. Taking a cue from the Berkeley Jews, I’m pitching this name to you — Ram Heshvan, a Heshvan of strength and resolve. A time to forcefully call out those who spew bigotry toward Jews and toward all the other folks who have been bullied and ridiculed and mocked and attacked for so long. A time to call out folks who use news of violence as a punchline or a meme.
A Ram Heshvan to you all! Ram strength, time to stand up and march forward.