Having studied and worked in landscape design, I have always been fascinated by the concept of genius loci, the spirit of a place. Since January, I have been exploring the genius loci of my beautiful cool climate southern hemisphere garden of which I am the privileged custodian. I have come to understand the interplay between its particular genius loci and the unfolding expression of the Jewish calendar cycle. This continues to be a path of deep learning for me, an opening to the gifts and opportunities of each month as a meeting between the earthy physical and the lofty spiritual, in what I have come to think of as kabbalah (receiving/parallelism) of the garden. What intrigues me is how the qualities of the month, which are usually explained in terms of northern hemisphere seasons, (ie the complete opposite of the ones I experience), are both universal and particular, finding expression and authenticity in the day by day, month by month revelation of Reality in this tiny plot of land that I cultivate in the mountains of southern Australia.
Having been travelling overseas for a couple of months, I returned home one week into the month of Cheshvan, to find the country still awash in a seemingly endless cycle of rain and flood, in this wettest year on record. Although I arrived too late to see the glorious outburst of colour and perfume that is early spring in this part of the world, I was equally struck by the lush beauty of such a verdant season, and the sight of death and decay with many plants succumbing to the pests and diseases that flourish in these soggy conditions. I noticed that the garden was manifesting both extremes of creation and destruction at the same time and that my labeling of the former as "good" and the latter as "bad" was causing me to wish things were other than what they were.
Cheshvan is often described as MarCheshvan/Bitter Cheshvan, because, after the intensity of the previous two months, it sadly lacks any festivals. However, there is another way to understand this. We can reframe the bitterness into sweetness, welcoming this month-long opportunity for spaciousness, as we settle into the underlying basic rhythm of six days in which to mould the world and the Shabbat to replenish, reconnect and rejoice.
Without the distraction of festivals, we have the choice of turning our Tishrei resolutions and dreams into habits. It is in Cheshvan that we can choose to stick to the path, to cultivate the seeds planted over the preceding weeks, to turn the bitterness (mar/מר) into elevation (ram/רמ). And despite the apparent emptiness of the month (and the bitterness of some significant yahtzeits), the teachings of Bnei Yissacher remind us that Cheshvan will see the dedication of the third Temple, a temple of place and possibility, perhaps even a temple of the heart in which one can live from the hineini place of integration of both physical and spiritual, (a state that Avraham must have been in with he akeydah test described in Vayera, one Cheshvan’s Torah portions).
According to Sefer Yetzirah, Cheshvan’s letter is nun/נ, the letter of creation and destruction, ebb and flow, liberation through humility. Through nun, we discover the rewards of continuous submission, of steadily sticking to the path, of taking our dreams and doing the work to turn them into reality. Nun allows us to move from work, to Shabbat, to work, to Shabbat, and to live fully from both.
The sense of the month is smell, arguably the most powerful sense as it is the only one in which we actually breathe in and metabolise the molecules of “the other”. Because of its association with breath, scent/fragrance can be considered to be a pathway to the transcendent and immanent experience of the Divine. The Hebrew word for smell/reyach/ ריח is very closely related to the word for soul/spirit/ruach/רוח.
The constellation of the month is scorpio/akrav/עקרב. Scorpio is associated with strong and extreme emotions, especially around power and control. And while scorpio is associated with the secretive but lethal sting in the tail, it is also associated with loyalty, bravery and determination.
The tribe is Menasheh/מנשה which wonderfully permutes to soul/neshamah/נשמה. Menasheh can be translated as “who causes forgetfulness” as well as “to leap up and away”.
The quality of the month is kavod/honour/respect/כבוד. Kavod describes fundamental respect for the existence of a being, including for ourselves. In this month, we are left alone to be with ourselves. Will we live our goals from Tishrei or were they premature? Do we make real change or do we continue to judge others and go back to our cravings for external validation? Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin said “nobody created their own soul. Everybody has been gifted with a rarefied essence”. It is through kavod that we recognise and respond to our essential self through the choices that we make in our everyday life.
All of these things seem to say to me - reconnect to breath, take in the fragrance, and use both to move from bitter into sweet. Stay on the path and reap the rewards that only come when we humbly glimpse our authentic divinity. Surely this is the challenge and the opportunity of the month - are we going to forget our soul purpose, or are we going to get on with the business of living, leaping up and away towards alignment?
The Cheshvan questions that stay with me as I wander through the garden this month are these:
Can I follow the scent of possibility, moving my dreams through to a lived experience of reality in whatever its form, as a place for the Divine?
Can I show up for “third temple consciousness” of timeless time, and placeless place regardless of the external circumstances in which I find myself?
Photos of my garden taken in Cheshvan
sandstone path winding under the lush spring foliage of a mature oak tree, flanked on one side by grafted weeping maples and the other side by banks of azaleas. This image reminds me of the necessity of having my own derech/path, and continuing to come back to it when I notice that I have wandered off.
Small photos (top to bottom)
Fragrant Lily of the Valley. I included this as a reminder of breath as a pathway towards transcendent possibility.
My meditation garden which I designed on the opening verse of Sefer Yetzirah, glimpsed through the very earthy profusion of blue bells and rhododendron blooms, heaven and earth connected, a pointer to third temple of possibilities.
Stone carving of a human figure bedded into the crook at the base of a tree. This carving, which my father brought back from Africa in the 1960s, both grounds and elevates me.
Menasheh/Neshamah, Re’ach/Ruach, nun and final nun (as in Cheshvan) - created on Canva.
From my collection.
Rabbi Daniel Raphael Silverstein’s Kabbalah through the Calendar course, AJS
Kohenet Ketzirah haMa’agelet, Devotaj Sacred Arts
Chana-Toni Whitmont is a collage artist, crystal sound practitioner, creative, teacher and student whose practice and passions are born from her spiritual connection to her Jewish lineage and the ebbs and flows in the annual calendar cycle. She lives with her husband close to nature in magnificent Dharug and Gundungurra country (also known as the Blue Mountains of eastern Australia). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org