Chodesh Chashvan: A message from Rav Chanan Apfel:
The Key Ingredient
There is a common misconception regarding the name and significance of this month of Cheshvan. Many assume that the name was originally (and remains) just חשון and only later, was a title added "מר חשון". The insinuation being that the month is somewhat מר (bitter) due to the absence of any holidays or inspiring features. The sense of deficiency is accentuated by it following the festive month of תשרי. The שדי חמד noted that some actually refrained from getting married during this month, for fear of the consequences of the prevailing acrimony.
However, this assumption is likely entirely erroneous. It is not only based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the origins of the name, but also on a faulty appreciation of its true essence and import. As the ערוך השולחן and other poskim point out, the correct name for purposes of halachic documentation is a single word; מרחשון. In addition, rather than relating to מרירות (bitterness), the prefix “מר” is instead intended as a title of exceptional respect and approbation. It is similar to the title used when referring to an esteemed and admired Tanna or Amorah.
Consistent with this positive view, the Bnei Yissacher related a beautiful Midrash that the third Beis Hamikdash will be dedicated in מרחשון specifically because of its vaunted status. The obvious question is as follows: on what basis has מרחשון been given this special distinction? Doesn’t the prevalent notion that being devoid of any special character, or exhibiting any particular celebrations, rightly suggest that this month be viewed negatively or neutrally at best?
Rabbenu Yona offers a relevant insight that may help resolve the issue. A well-known Mishnah in (ה:ג) פרקי אבות relates that there were ten נסיונות through which Avraham Avinu was tested. Heroically, he withstood them all, thus demonstrating his tremendous love for הקב”ה. The Rishonim debated what exactly were these ten נסיונות and in what specific order should they be presented. All agreed, that in general, they should be listed in ascending level of difficulty. Not surprisingly, almost all viewed the tenth, and most challenging נסיון, to be the עקידה. Only Rabbenu Yona deviated from this trend, placing the עקידה as number nine. Somewhat astonishingly, Avraham’s difficulties in bargaining over Sarah’s burial was given top billing as number ten. This seems strange, as this relatively minor נסיון was not even listed by many of the other Rishonim at all.
How then are we to understand Rabbenu Yona’s strange deviation from the reasonable approach of the others? Rav Eliyahu Dessler suggested that to some degree Rabbenu Yona’s ordering was related to the sequence of the various ניסיונות that Avraham encountered. The frustrating haggling over purchasing of the kever, was particularly trying because it chronologically followed the עקידה. Moreover, as Rashi famously pointed out, after returning from the near sacrificing of his only son, Avraham was immediately confronted with the tremendously painful loss of his wife as well. Clearly, Avraham had every reason to react impatiently and angrily with his dubious business associates. Remarkably however, he instead persisted in exhibiting his usual calm demeanor and absolute dedication to ישרות under all circumstances. Still, as impressive as Avraham’s forbearance might have been, one still wonders if this warranted it being placed as the crowning נסיון. Wasn’t it still quite mundane in comparison to the עקידה?
In response to this dilemma, Rav Bezalel Zolty offered the following insight. If one is זוכה to realize a particularly impressive spiritual feat, while certainly commendable, it may not reveal much regarding that individual’s personality or consistency. Perhaps it simply resulted from a transient moment of inspiration. Only a person’s steady, day to day interactions reflect the totality of the individual. Moreover, it is the constancy of laudatory behavior even of the “lesser” variety, that proves that previous greater achievements themselves were genuine. Unquestionably, the עקידה was Avraham’s greatest single achievement. However, it was not the greatest proof of his genuine internal greatness. Only in passing the less grandiose נסיון with Sarah’s kever do we witness how Avraham displayed the same strength of character even in his day-to-day interactions. It is at this point when Avraham verified that his previous grander achievements stemmed solely from a perfected personality.
It is true that מרחשון is the only month not granted a unique and inspiring characteristic, by which it can impact directly on our minds and souls. Nevertheless, it is that very quality; the absence of grandeur, that enables this month to be the crowning glory of all the others. As Rav SR Hirsch pointed out, “it is the routine of everyday life that reflects our true existence”. מרחשון has no other message for us except that it provides the essential platform to demonstrate that everything we may have accomplished during the highly charged month of ,תשרי has impacted upon us far more than as a temporary month of inspiration. Instead, starting in the pivotal month of מרחשון, we can proclaim that a true and permanent positive effect has been embedded deeply into our hearts, and will BE”H be expressed moving forward in our everyday actions and attitudes.
Rav Chanan Apfel