By Reb David
This week marks the end of the first Jewish month of Tishrei and its cycle of High Holy Days, and the start of the second month of Cheshvan. Tishrei brings Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, while Cheshvan has no holidays at all. This shift from the High Holy Days – the high peak of the Jewish year – seemed so stark to the rabbis that they named the month Marcheshvan (“bitter Cheshvan”). After all, there’s nothing like a peak experience to make us feel high and lofty, and coming down can feel like a sharp descent into the ordinary —
— which begs some questions. What is wrong with “ordinary”? And what does “ordinary” time mean for spiritual life? Must the “ordinary” of Cheshvan be “bitter” (Marcheshvan) compared to the sweetness of this past month’s spiritual highs?
To these questions, Jack Kornfield offers a beautiful reply: “After the ecstasy, the laundry.” After peak experience, there’s still “ordinary” living to do: there’s still dirt and there’s still laundry. Spiritual experience, even “Enlightenment,” doesn’t negate daily life or its mundane responsibilities. The Jewish path (halacha, “the way”) – and the way of many sister traditions – is not to negate the mundane, but to bring holy awareness and intention to the seemingly “mundane.” Yes, laundry can be holy.
Not by coincidence, last week also began the Torah cycle anew, starting with the Starts of Starts, with Parshat Bereishit – Creation, Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden and expulsion from the Garden. Bereishit reminds that all things hail from a holy spark (even dirt, even laundry), and that all of us are made b’tzelem Elohim (“in the image of God”). And just as we return again to seemingly mundane life after the peak experience of the High Holy Days, Bereishit comes around and sends humanity’s forebears out of the Garden of Eden to make lives in the “real world.” Just as they were to scratch the ground, work for food, experience pain in bringing new creations into the world, suffer loss and die, so must we.
But leaving the Garden does not lack holiness: it makes “real life” possible. Only by leaving the Garden do we enter history. Only then can we live human lives. Only then can we feel the joys and highs of life both spiritual and temporal. Now that’s up to us.
Our calling is to channel the holy shefa (“spirit”) of peak experience from the spiritual into the temporal, to bring holiness from the High Holy Days (our own Garden of Eden?) into laundry and jobs and traffic. For each of us that tries it just a bit, it won’t be a Marcheshvan (“bitter Cheshvan“). And if we all do it, then imagine: we might remake a Garden of Eden here and now.