Poor Cheshvan. It is conceived as a pitiful month. Even its formal name, Mar-cheshvan, belies its nature, a bitter month, with no special taste of a holiday. After the ultimate high of Tishrei, where we individually and as a nation experienced a closeness to God and the divine, we then begin again with Cheshvan, utterly mundane, common and even a bit boring. We have heard the blasts of the shofar, poured out our hearts on Yom Kippur, felt the divine presence a little closer to us in the Sukkah and had our own special time with God on Shemini Atzeret. Then it is back to the same old, same old. Since time in the Jewish tradition is so paramount—it is about time after all—is there any possible rationale for the sharp calendar contrast?
A cursory look at the parshiyot in the Torah, the weekly portions that we will read in this month, perhaps gives us some answer for this temporal anomaly. After Bereshit, we then see the human experience with the Divine in all the narratives in Noach, Lech L'cha, Vayera, Chayei Sarah and Toldot. Like us, all the Biblical characters have had some encounter with the divine. Noach follows God's commands but uses the experience for his family alone. The whole experience may have been just too much for him as his stumbles drunk in his own vineyard. Avraham, by contrast, takes the Divine experience beyond himself and his family as the number one PR agent and ambassador for the 'One God.' Yitzchak barely escapes with his life after his divine encounter and never fully recovers from the experience. Yaakov will physically struggle with the divine to emerge strong but then only to be devastated when he believes his favorite son is dead. But in each encounter, each character (including the matriarchs) has to choose for himself what to do with such a heightened experience. Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov have to take responsibility for the personal meaning of the encounter in their own lives, the lives of their family members and ultimately the Jewish people.
So maybe the challenge of Cheshvan is not trying to maintain the spiritual high of Tishrei throughout a mundane month–that might be too daunting and exhausting. It is a smaller lesson that our tradition offers to us, the lesson of free choice, b'chira chofsheet and personal responsibility. We have been endowed with the freedom of even choosing what we will do with our experience with God. God does not tell us what to do with the experience nor did God tell the patriarchs. We have had the time to commune with a force beyond ourselves. Now, in this month of Cheshvan, we and we alone just need to decide what to do with it.