The Two Way Street: Mar Cheshvan — The Bitter Month

Rabbi John Friedman
on October 9, 2018

Tired of preaching? Weary of fasting? You’re in good company. Tishri, with its excessive cluster of holy times, is not the favorite month of rabbis and cantors, either. However, Cheshvan, which follows Tishri, is wildly popular with Jewish clergy: 29 days and no yuntif!

That is not, however, the way Jewish tradition sees it. Our texts refer to this fiesta-less month as the “bitter month.” Its original name, still used occasionally, is Marcheshvan. The “Mar” prefix can be read as the Hebrew word for “bitter.” Some continue to label this second month on the Hebrew calendar as “Bitter Cheshvan.” But the Jewish calendar is not the only source of bitterness we are experiencing in this moment.

As we heard across the country during the recent High Holy Days, clergy and Jewish leaders are addressing the “bitter” behavior of our beloved Israel. Washington Post Op-Ed columnist Dana Milbank confirmed Cheshvan’s promise of bitterness in an article featuring a sermon by his rabbi, Danny Zemel, of DC’s Temple Micah.

On Kol Nidre, Rabbi Zemel, whose “love for Israel has not diminished one iota” described the current Israeli government as having, “like Esau, sold its birthright.” Zemel pondered “Israel’s first anti-Zionist government” and looked back upon “the rise of ultra-nationalism tied to religious extremism, the upsurge in settler violence, the overriding of supreme court rulings upholding democracy and human rights, the confiscation of Arab villages” and other bitter conduct.

On the same day that Rabbi Zemel delivered his sermon, Rabbi John Franken at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, North Carolina  — who regards love of Zion as a non-optional mitzvah — considered the challenge of struggling to feel the pride and unity that Israel evoked in years past. Rabbi Franken spoke for many in affirming:

“[I] know the arguments: that the occupation of another people is immoral and cruel; that it is untenable and a threat to Israel’s long-term security and democratic character; that the taking of Palestinian land and the building of settlements on it is illegal and wrong; that the suffering experienced by Palestinians is deep, for which Israel bears a share of responsibility. And I don’t disagree with any of those propositions. For I believe in Isaiah’s vision of Israel being a light unto the nations.”

Rabbi Franken also referred to a remark by URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs in The New York Times, that Israel has posted a “giant sign by the door of the Jewish state [stating]: ‘Don’t come unless you agree with everything we’re doing here.’”

How bitter to read about prominent American Jews like Peter Beinart being detained at Ben Gurion Airport for voicing views contrary to Israeli government policy. These and other bitter policies and practices offend our morals and move Israel further from peace and from us.

More and more, our rabbis are summoning the courage to condemn these outrages — formerly discussed and informally debated at onegs and in Jewish homes — from their pulpits. Rabbis Franken, Zemel and others care deeply about Israel and so they speak up, despite the factions that wish everyone would look the other way, while Israel, like brother Esau, sells its birthright.

J Street offers the American Jewish community tools to address the bitterness we are experiencing. We work with like-minded senators and members of Congress, clergy and community leaders to reclaim the positive and joyous promise of an Israel that values human rights and once again stands for the sacred destiny of our people. Is it not time to lend a hand?

We must work harder for the two-state solution, which is essential for the normalization of life in an Israel with recognized borders and Palestinian neighbors who can govern themselves in peace and dignity. We must stand for stronger US action against relentless Israeli settlement expansion. We must help address the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, which continues to deteriorate and threaten Israeli security.

For the future of Israel and the Jewish people, all of us must commit to and act on the pledge to live our values and build a better world.

We will have eliminated the mar/bitter from our relationship with the State of Israel when contemporary Israelis and Jews follow the lead of our ancestor Israel, who met Esau after years of alienation with the words, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.”

Rabbi John Friedman is the Rabbi Emeritus of Judea Reform Congregation. He was the first chair of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet and, in 2015, was awarded T’ruah’s Human Rights Rabbi of the Year Award. He was a Fellow at Harvard in 1994 and 2009 and is the author of “The Trial of the Talmud: Paris 1240.”

If you are interested in writing for Two-Way Street, please email Shaina Wasserman at Shaina@jstreet.org. All submissions should be 600 words or under.

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