Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan Torah Essay
The Potential of MarCheshvan
After leaving the month of Tishrei replete with various mitzvot of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, the month of Cheshvan appears bare, mundane and bitter. Our avodah is usually quite perspicuous throughout the month of Tishrei, yet the opposite is true about Cheshvan. How is our avodat Hashem meant to be expressed during the month of Cheshvan?
The (שם משמואל (בראשית, ג׳, written by Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain who was the second Sochatchover Rebbe, noted that the סדר הדגלים, the flags which the shvatim carried as they traveled through the midbar, corresponded to the different months of the year. We know that Yosef is divided into two separate shvatim – Ephraim and Menashe; the flag of Tishrei is allotted to Shevet Ephraim, while the flag of Cheshvan is allotted to shevet Menashe.
Before understanding what the correlation between Cheshvan and the tribe of Menashe is teaching us, it is imperative to understand the root of what Ephraim and Menashe stand for. The שם משמואל explains that the nature of Ephraim and Menashe is “סור מרע ועשה טוב” – “stay away from evil and do good”. Menashe’s name comes from the words “נשני אלקים את כל עמלי” – “you made me forget my pain”, which focuses on the negative – “סור מרע” staying away from the bad. Ephraim’s name, however, comes from “כי הפרני אלקים בארץ עניי” – “Hashem allowed me to multiply and do good” – Ephraim’s name is focusing on the good, on the “עשה טוב”. Therefore, together Menashe and Ephraim represent the idea of “סור מרע ועשה טוב” .
The question that the שם משמואל asks is which of those midot should precede the other – סור מרע or עשה טוב? When Yaakov was going to give a bracha to Ephraim and Menashe, he started to put his hand on Ephraim first, but Yosef wanted him to switch hands because Menashe was the firstborn and Yosef believed that his character trait of סור מרע came first in the order of “סור מרע ועשה טוב”. The שם משמואל explains that this machloket between Yaakov and Yosef which we see in the Torah was not about who should get the first bracha in terms of being the oldest, but rather which of these midot was primary – “סור מרע” or “עשה טוב”?
Yosef wanted Yaakov to first put his hand on Menashe like the order of the pasuk (Tehillim 34:15) – first you must be “סור מרע” and once that is completed, then “עשה טוב” can be done. However, when Yaakov Avinu put his hands on Ephraim first, he taught us a new approach to serving Hashem. By believing that he should begin with Ephraim he was exemplifying the idea that we should begin with “עשה טוב”. Yaakov taught the fundamental idea that we should initially involve ourselves in doing good, “עשה טוב”, and automatically from that we will be “סור מרע”, removed from the bad. The שם משמואל explains here that it is extremely challenging to be “סור מרע”, the state of evil is very difficult and the yetzer hara is very cunning. Therefore, it is challenging to delay the “עשה טוב” until after one has been “סור מרע”.
We can now properly understand why the months of Tishrei and Cheshvan correlate to Ephraim and Menashe appropriately. Tishrei is associated with Ephraim because it is full of mitzvot, and it is therefore all about “עשה טוב”, doing good. Cheshvan, however, bereft of special holiday mitzvot, does not provide “עשה טוב” that is unique to the month. Therefore, the essence of Cheshvan is Menasheh – “סור מרע”. Our job during this month is to stay away from evil and focus on what we can eliminate from our lives that our yetzer hara is trying to lead us towards.
The שם משמואל further explains that every month has a different constellation (מזל). The מזל of Cheshvan is an עקרב, a scorpion. The Avnei Nezer says that when we talk about certain months having a specific מזל, they often have no meaning, and could even have a negative connotation. However, when the Gemara (שבת קנ”ו) explains the idea of “אֵין מַזָּל לְיִשְׂרָאֵל” it means that although each month has a certain mazel or disposition, a Jew has the power to transform a negative tendency into a medium for kedusha. An example of this is Cheshvan.
As the שם משמואל explained, Cheshvan’s מזל is a scorpion, which represents קרירות רוח, a cold spirit. The nature of a scorpion is to be stationary and passive; it is known to be one of the most solitary animals. Everything that a scorpion does throughout its life is with a certain coldness and lack of passion. This is not a midah we strive for, rather the opposite! We hope that every person will be passionate and engaged in this world. Therefore, if the month of Cheshvan is parallel to the tribe of Menashe, and the purpose is to work on our “סור מרע”, then perhaps we should use the midah of the scorpion of being stationary and channel it towards kedusha. The midah of קרירות רוח can help us be “סור מרע” if we are tenacious and stay put like a scorpion, staying away from negative pursuits. Our avoda is not primarily expressed through עשה טוב this month, but rather through סור מרע, stepping away from distractions in our lives that are not good for us.
Cheshvan in fact, is not a month of bitterness and bareness. Rather, we should maximize our time this month to first reflect upon all of the עשה טוב that we have recently attained, and allow ourselves to focus on the idea and pursuit of סור מרע. May we all be zoche to remove ourselves from negative temptations and influences in our lives and tap into the קְדוּשָׁה of this uniquely special month as we continue to develop in our ‘עבודת ה.