I love the Hebrew month of Tishrei because it’s filled with a plethora of holidays. I especially appreciate that balance of the festivals: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the Days of Awe, during which we set aside time for serious introspection, which is immediately followed by the joy of Sukkot and Simchat Torah. I look forward to preparing fall foods, especially my Gigi’s apple cake and pumpkin chocolate chip bread.
Despite living in South Florida, I vicariously appreciate the arrival of fall with its cooler temperatures and changing leaves. However, after all of the anticipation and excitement over the holidays, by the end of Simchat Torah, I’m spent! I feel done with cooking, entertaining, sukkah-building and synagogue — I just want some down time.
Fortunately, such a period is built into the Jewish calendar!
Although the Hebrew month following Tishrei is Cheshvan, this name is actually truncated from its original name: Marcheshvan, which comes from ancient Akkadian, meaning “the eighth month.” Over the centuries, Jewish tradition has creatively suggested that this name can be divided into two words: mar and cheshvan. Since one meaning of the word mar is “bitter,” the month of Cheshvan has come to be associated with “bitterness” due to its lack of festivals — no feasts or fasts.
True, after an intense month filled with holidays, Cheshvan may seem like a bit of a letdown. But, personally, I love it. To me, the quiet of Cheshvan is most welcome. I appreciate the slower pace of the month and the “normalcy” associated with it; a regular month with no holidays other than weekly Shabbat observance.
This dichotomy between sustained activity and rest got me thinking about my life, in general, and how I’m raising my kids (who are now 20 and 19). When my kids were much younger, I limited their extracurricular activities with the hopes of creating a healthy balance between activity and rest. They were each allowed to pick one sport and one art form at a time. To be honest, part of that was for selfish reasons — I couldn’t do any more carpooling! But, in the end, I’m glad that this structure provided them with downtime to go outside and just play. I loved to watch them outside in the backyard, kicking around a soccer ball or looking for bugs and lizards. As they grew, I remember saying to my 11th-grader, “I’m probably one of a few parents who wants to limit the number of AP classes you’re taking.” Of course, I wanted him to feel challenged; however, I also wanted him to have time for fun and for rest.
This idea of relishing rest is countercultural to our Western values. We are taught that our value is linked to our output, and that resting and relaxing is simply time wasted, time when we could have been productive. We live in a society that constantly pushes us for more — more working, more consuming, more doing, more purchasing. But, to be quite frank, it is taking a toll on all of us: ourselves, our children, our families, our communities and our planet. Despite the rat race that so many of us run, studies show that rest has been linked to improve physical and mental health. Rest helps boost the immune system — especially important during a pandemic! — improve mood, reduce stress, increase concentration and memory. I believe that it’s time to reclaim the benefits of rest, to see these moments of pause as nourishing and life-affirming.
Luckily, Jewish tradition teaches us the importance and value of rest. Each week, we are provided with an opportunity to rest for 25 hours on Shabbat. This weekly day of rest grants us time to be and not to do. And now, we have arrived at this break in the Jewish calendar year — following the hectic High Holiday season, when we are granted a whole month to rest and rejuvenate.
So, instead of seeing this rest from the Jewish holidays season as bitter, I’d like to reframe Cheshvan as a month of nourishment instead. Consider: How might we learn to appreciate the benefit of rest? And perhaps more important: How do we truly rest?
Here are five ideas to help you reclaim some rest in your life:
1. Dedicate 10 minutes of each day to yourself.
Parenting is an exhausting job that requires relentless decision-making. When we’re tired and stressed out, we don’t always make the best decisions and we might even yell more than we’d like to. When we’re rested, however, we are more likely to respond more calmly and make better decisions.
No matter how busy you are, find a way to carve out just 10 minutes of “me time” to recharge. Maybe it’s your morning cup of coffee that you have before the kids wake up, or an afternoon power nap or a late-night TV show that allows you time to rest. Find your time during the day that allows you to rest fully and enjoy some inner peace.
2. Carve out significant alone time each week.
I know this might sound challenging but it is so worth it — find the time each week to do something you love; something that fully engages your attention so that you forget all of the other stressors in your life, even if it’s only a short amount of time. If childcare is an issue, perhaps you and a friend watch each other’s kids for an hour once or twice a week? Or try doing one less errand when you do have some free time and dedicate that time, or at least part of that time, to doing something relaxing. There is not one “best” way to relax — do whatever feels right for you.
3. Spend some time in nature.
The benefits of being in nature include increased physical, mental and emotional well-being. What’s more, you can experience these benefits if you’re alone or if the whole family is in tow! Maybe it’s some beach time, a hike in the mountains or a walk around the neighborhood where you take time to notice the flora and fauna in a mindful way. If you’re not able to leave your home, find a quiet space in your yard or look out of a window to appreciate the beauty in the natural world.
4. Practice deep breathing.
Deep breathing takes our bodies out of flight or fight mode and moves us into rest and digest mode. Learn a few different types of breathing techniques (I find the box breath, alternate nostril breathing and the 4-7-8 breath particularly calming) that can help you rest even while you might be in the middle of some chaos.
5. Power off your devices.
Don’t just make time to unplug from your electronic device — actually turn them off. It is well known that having our cell phones on causes us to be distracted, not allowing us to be fully present in our lives. Especially at night time, turning off your phone will enable you to get a better night’s sleep without fear of being awakened by a call or text.
As we move into the month of Cheshvan, my hope is we can all come to appreciate the intrinsic value of rest. Let’s stop calling this month “bitter” and instead let’s see rest as beautiful and beneficial.