By Alexandra Fleksher
The month of Cheshvan is often associated with lacking, darkness and destruction. Lacking, in that it’s the month of no holidays, aptly named Mar (bitter) Cheshvan. Darkness, in that it’s the month leading us into the winter season. Rashi says during this month, the grass withers (baleh), which is also associated with the flood (mabul) which occurred during Cheshvan. Interestingly, the Beis Hamikdash was completed on the 17th of Cheshvan, and during the years from the flood until its completion, the Jews worried there would be another flood on its anniversary and the 40 days following. Once the Beis Hamikdash was completed, their fear abated. As a result, the letter “mem” (gematria 40) was removed from the word “mabul” and the month of Cheshvan also became known as “Bul.”
Cheshvan has other, perhaps lesser-known associations, which point to entirely different concepts such as grit, resilience and commitment. Yeshayahu refers to the word “mar” from Mar Cheshvan as a drop of water. We know the power of a drop of water from Rabbi Akiva: “Just as soft water soft water sculpts the hard stone, words of Torah, which are as hard as iron, will all the more so carve my heart, which his but flesh and blood.” Rabbi Akiva’s constant and persistent efforts to learn Torah at an older age paid off, and he compares his experience to that of a dripping drop of water sculpting a stone.
Mar now means something else besides bitter. It alludes to the steady drip of consistent effort which yields returns. We now enter an opportune time to take our new hopes, dreams and commitments from Elul and Tishrei and put them into action, one small step at a time. The message of Rabbi Akiva guides us. It’s the small daily efforts that are the key to accomplishment and success.
Now that the yamim tovim are over, we may be relishing just a bit in the break from the intensity of the Elul/Tishrei season. We’re finally “back to normal”, and that’s not just referencing our schedule. The extra efforts we made in our Avodas Hashem during the Yamim Noraim are now a thing of the past. But the Chida instructs us that our journey has only just begun:
After the inspiration of Elul and Tishrei, we cannot rest on our laurels and become lax in Avodas Hashem. On the contrary, make a commitment that will persist and grow stronger over the course of the coming months, fighting like a warrior to toil in Torah and mitzvos, using the gifts that Hashem bestowed upon you. The month of Cheshvan serves as a direct continuation of teshuva, displaying that the change was not a “one-time shot” but rather a commitment that will persist and grow over the course of the coming months.
The Chida wants us to fight like a warrior to toil in Torah and mitzvos! Starting right now, in Cheshvan. But how do we build those fighting muscles? How do we build that spiritual stamina and resilience needed to stay the course in our Avodas Hashem? How do we attain that seemingly elusive, yet highly desirable quality called grit?
Grit, no doubt, has been one of the biggest buzzwords of the decade. Usually referring to tenacity, resolve and strength of character, the term has been refined in recent years due to the research of Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Duckworth was thrown into the limelight when she delivered a 2013 TED talk titled “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” (It has since been viewed almost 11 million times, and she published a New York Times best-seller under the same title.)
She told of leaving a high-powered consulting job to teach math in New York public schools. Duckworth realized that successful students had more than IQ going for them; they also had grit. Her research later confirmed that grit — more than talent, IQ, or social intelligence — is one of the most significant predictors of success.
Duckworth defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Gritty people value effort over talent, maintain their motivation and determination despite setbacks, understand that their grit can grow, and invest consistent effort over the long run. As Duckworth says, “Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.”
Being a growing, religious Jew requires endurance, both emotional and spiritual. One of the biggest takeaways we can take from the research on grit which we can apply to our spiritual lives is the idea that gritty people maintain motivation and determination despite setbacks. Our mistakes, our aveiros and our distractions so often make us feel despondent in our Avodas Hashem. But we have one of our favorite pasukim from Mishlei to remind us that these setbacks cannot trip us up: “A righteous man falls 7 times and gets up, while the wicked are tripped up by one misfortune.” The righteous man has that spiritual grittiness we strive for. He understands that setbacks are a natural part of life. The question for us all is if we will let them get us down or not. As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov says, “We need to start over each day. And sometimes many times a day.”
The research of social scientists has taught us that one of the most effective ways to keep moving in face of adversity, failures and obstacles is to have a goal and a meaningful purpose in life. Gritty people know they’re here for a reason and that the gifts they have lend to a greater cause than themselves. They’re clear about their purpose and their contribution to the world. Luckily, as Jews, we have these beliefs built into our DNA. The hard part, of course, is putting them into action.
This Cheshvan, let’s remember that image of the “mar”, the steady yet powerful drip of water which symbolizes our daily efforts at growth, as well as the Chida’s message that we have to fight with resilience to make and keep our spiritual commitments which will, with Hashem’s help, persist and grow over the coming months.
Mrs. Alex Fleksher is an educator, speaker, op-ed columnist for Mishpacha Magazine, co-host of Deep Meaningful Conversations, and creative director of the Faces of Orthodoxy social media account. She holds a Masters degree in secondary Jewish education from Azrieli Graduate School and an undergraduate degree in English/Communications from Stern College for Women. Alex is an active member of her local Cleveland community and a dynamic teacher with a passion for community activism. She’s a former chair of the Shabbos Project Cleveland, a founding board member of Chaviva High School for Girls and a co-founder of The Chizuk Retreat Cleveland.