The Shekhinah in Cheshvan

Written for the new moon of Cheshvan, 5765/2004.

Just a few days ago, on Hoshanah Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot, along with
a whole congregation of Jews, I beat a switch of willow branches on the floor until the leaves fell off. This was a signal to God to send the rain--and a sign of my desire to break the barriers between me and the sacred earth. As I fulfilled this ancient ritual, I wanted to strip myself down to the root, to become simple, honest, and clear. I wanted to be let in, through the skin of the ground, into the wholeness of the earth.

This kind of simplicity takes work. Tishrei is about abundance and luxuriance, but Cheshvan, which follows closely upon the festival season, is the month of hard labor. It is an underground time, when we turn over the soil within and without, when we seek our roots. We merge with the earth, and give our strength to it, that it may bloom again in the spring.

The Divine too is working at this time of year. In Cheshvan, the Shekhinah, God's presence on earth, born into the world at the new year, leaves the shelter of the mishkan, the sanctuary. By dwelling within us and within all life, she becomes subject to change, and to the cycle of birth and death. In Tishrei the Shekhinah dances; in Cheshvan She begins her dark journey through the winter. As the days grow colder, we enter the dreamtime of the year, seeking new meaning in our own inner depths. It is a time to write down our dreams, to explore our memories of our ancestors, to paint or write our stories--to go as deep as we can in finding our roots, so that we can prepare to grow.

The most significant day of Cheshvan is the yahrtzeit of Rachel the matriarch, celebrated on the eleventh but honored by some on the fifteenth, the full moon. Rachel is the beloved wife of Jacob. Though barren, she conceives, and becomes the mother of a people. The prophet Jeremiah sees Rachel as a compassionate advocate for her descendants, and depicts her pleading with the Holy One, even when He is angry, to redeem the Israelite nation. In mystical tradition, Rachel symbolizes the Shekhinah, and the earth. In Cheshvan, Rachel dies in childbirth, while bearing her son Benjamin. To me, this symbolizes the descent of the Shekhinah into a world of limitation and finitude in order to create life. Legend has it that the Third Temple, the shrine of peace and completion, will be built in Cheshvan, the month when the Shekhinah learns the ways of life and death, and becomes the inner root of existence.

Cheshvan, the time of work, is the month of the Body--the deep physical and
spiritual body that is ours, and, through us, Shekhinah's. It is only when we acknowledge the inner truths of our daily lives, the truths of the baking pan and the spinning wheel, the truths of the skin and the soil, that we come close to wisdom and redemption.

Rabbi Jill Hammer is the founder of Tel Shemesh and the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women. She is also a senior associate at Ma'yan: the Jewish Women's Project.

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