Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cheshvan and Cheshbon Nefesh

Yesterday we celebrated Rosh Chodesh Kislev, looking ahead to Chanukah. Cheshvan is now in the rear-view mirror – but worth a look back.

The month is called “Mar Cheshvan”, bitter Cheshvan, because it has no holidays whatsoever, not even a fast day. After the marathon of holidays during Tishrei, it's almost shock therapy – and even a bit of a relief. But why specifically do we have this 30 day stretch that is purposefully barren?

To answer that question, let's look at a bit of halacha, and a bit of psychology. On Shemini Atzeret, we recognize the change of seasons in the Land of Israel and begin saying “Mashiv ha-ruach u-morid ha-geshem”, You cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall. Or at least, we're supposed to begin saying it in all our davenning thereafter – but sometimes we're distracted, or reciting by rote, or maybe we're fortunate enough to be so caught up in the kavannah of the last bracha that we're not really focusing on the next one. And if we didn't insert Mashiv ha-ruach, then we may need to go back, at least to the beginning of the bracha, or perhaps even repeat the whole Amidah (nusach sefard davenners who mention the year-round phenomenon of Tal, dew,  may be able to avoid such repetitions -- it gets a little complicated).

Recognizing our fallibility in establishing new habits, the halacha has extensive guidance for what to do if one is unsure whether the proper words were said. The first question: how long have you been saying Mashiv ha-ruach? The longer a new habit is in place, the more confident we can be that we've done the right thing, even if we weren't concentrating on it (see OC 114:9; MB 114:40-44). Thirty days is deemed sufficient, according Rabbeinu Peretz. Ah, but the Maharam of Rottenburg says, during 30 days we repeat the davenning 90 times (apparently not counting Musaf) – repetition is more important than duration, so you can just practice saying that bracha (without shem ha-Shem presumably) 90 times, and then you can be confident in your new habit.

Here's where modern psychological research is catching up with our medieval rabbis. Establishing a new pattern in life takes a lot of elements working together – time, repetition, and perhaps a certain expanse that has been cleared for routine to dominate. Cheshvan is the open field where we plant the fruit of Tishrei. Decisions made in the throes of teshuva have a chance to grow sturdy roots in the quiet of Cheshvan. And while 28 days or 30 days or 90 repetitions aren't hard and fast rules for establishing new habits, a solid month is a pretty good trial period.

So how did we do this past month? Change the “vuv” in Cheshvan to a “vet”, and we get Cheshbon, as in Cheshbon nefesh. A full month has gone by since the chaggim, and the check is due for a spiritual accounting. Do our routines match our spiritual aspirations? Is there alignment between keva (fixed practice) and kavannah (intention)?

In Karen Armstrong's new book, The Case for God, she writes about religion in the old days:

Religion... was not primarily something that people thought, but something they did. It's truth was acquired by practical action. It is no use imagining that you will be able to drive a car if you simply read the manual or study the rules of the road. You cannot learn to dance, paint, or cook by perusing text or recipes. The rules of a board game sound obscure, unnecessarily complicated, and dull until you start to play, when everything falls into place. There are some things that can be learned only by constant, dedicated practice, but you find that you achieve something that seemed initially impossible. Instead of sinking to the bottom of the pool, you can float, you may learn to jump higher and with more grace than seems humanly possible, or to sing with unearthly beauty. You do not always understand how you achieved these feats, because your mind directs your body in a way that bypasses conscious logical deliberation, but somehow you learn to transcend your original capabilities.
This exposition brings to mind a famous dictum in the Talmud (Hagigah 9b):

“Repeating one's Mishnah one hundred times is not the same as repeating it one hundred and one times.”

Often taken as a piece of the instruction manual for Jewish meditation, the idea is that repetition takes one to a different place. The brain somehow wraps itself around what is repeated in a tighter and tighter way, freeing itself to reach new heights. As Karen Armstrong observes:

Some of these activities bring indescribable joy. A musician can lose herself in her music, a dancer becomes inseparable from the dance, and a skier feels entirely at one with himself and the external world as he speeds down the slope. It is a satisfaction that goes deeper than merely "feeling good." It is what the Greeks called ekstatis, which means a stepping outside the norm.

Rav Soloveichik gave a Yahrzeit shiur in memory of his father, Reb Moshe, focusing on this passage in the Talmud.  Interestingly, he quotes Reb Shneyer Zalman in the Tanya, saying “Sometimes I must be a hasid and cite hasidic sources”. Up to the 100th repetition is understood as part of the learning process (or in our context, the process of acquiring the habit). The 101st repetition (and beyond) is not about content, it's about spiritual devotion, i.e., living a life constituted by spiritually-ground habits.

The Rav writes that he never understood what was accomplished by “learning” a text that is already completely learned. But he observed the 101st repetition and its effect – watching his father, and his grandfather Reb Chaim, deep into the night on Rosh Hashana and on Yom Kippur, chanting the words that they knew so well  of the Mishnah and Gemara for those days. Not learning the text, specifically – “they both certainly knew these texts by heart.” But rather, living the text -- “they recited these words with so much enthusiasm and ecstasy that they could not stop.”

The Rav's description matches precisely with Armstrong's. The habits of religious practice deliver us, if we reach such a madreiga, such a level, to a state of ekstatis – outside the norm – and help to create a new madreiga, a new norm. Interestingly, the Chatam Sofer (his commentary on Orach Chaim siman 20) goes beyond the Maharam in the number of repetitions of Mashiv ha-Ruach needed to establish the new pattern: he says it's 101, surely a tribute to this same passage in the gemara.

Religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart. ... It is no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth of falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth -- or lack of it -- only if you translate those doctrines into ritual or ethical action. Like any skill, religion requires perseverance, hard work, and discipline.

Much of the modern debate about whether halachic practice is desirable is framed as keva vs. kavannah – that the supposedly mindless repetition of stale words and rituals interferes with the ability to focus true intention through one's actions. But the older truth is that kavannah is often possible because of keva. Mindfulness, and even ecstasy, depend on the structures of habit and repetition. Not just the pinnacles of Tishrei, but the flat plains of Cheshvan, lead us higher and higher.

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