A time to de-chametz our lives
What do chametz, COVID-19, and Netflix tidying guru Marie Kondo have in common? They’re all contributing to the current cleaning craze. As we comb our houses for chametz, it’s the perfect time to sweep away our physical and psychological clutter.
Not just the season of our freedom, Pesach is also (unofficially) the festival of cleaning. Not only do we rid our homes of chametz, but the word “seder” literally translates as order. “Cleaning for Pesach is a good springboard for looking at all the aspects of your home,” says Leanne Mendelow, a cleaning expert who is one of the first certified KonMari™ consultants in Africa.
“When one starts a project like the cleaning of chametz, it sparks an excitement to carry on and get one’s home in order,” says decluttering and home-organisation expert Mandy Cohen.
Pesach cleaning offers an opportunity to give every room a spring clean, bringing order to our lives and freeing up space for us to focus on the things that really matter.
It’s not only Pesach that’s made cleaning up a hot topic. Largely confined to our four walls during the various levels of lockdown, we’ve also faced unprecedented uncertainty during COVID-19. That’s why many of us have tried to create order inside our homes as the world outside seemingly spins off its axis.
“Cleaning during COVID-19 has allowed us to relieve anxiety by taking action,” says clinical psychologist Amanda Fortes. “This makes us feel like we’re doing something about the problem. It gives us a sense of being in control of a situation over which we have none.” Although we can’t control COVID-19, we can control the mess. And there are numerous experts who can help us to do so.
“Turning chaos into calm has always been a passion of mine,” says Mendelow. When she discovered renowned Japanese organising consultant and author Kondo’s Netflix show, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, Mendelow decided to channel her passion into a business. She travelled to the United States shortly before the COVID-19 crisis made such endeavours impossible to train with Kondo and her team.
Kondo’s method of tidying is rooted in the idea of keeping only items that “spark joy”. This idea is the final element of her six steps to decluttering. These steps include committing to the process; cleaning by category and not by location, for example, organising the books in every room; and discarding items first and then organising what’s left.
Everything, be it toys or foodstuffs, is then arranged into categories, the root of efficient tidying. “Everything goes back in its place and has a place to go back to,” says Mendelow. That’s what makes the method so sustainable. There are no more family arguments over where things go or stress about lost items. There’s a sense of peace that comes with instilling order in your home.
“Cleaning up has been proven to make you feel lighter and calmer,” Cohen says. Ultimately, it’s about what suits your specific needs. “I don’t use a ‘one-size-fits-all‘ approach when it comes to organisation. I customise a system that will work for each individual, which should help them keep their spaces organised,” she says.
“When I start the decluttering process, I always ask my client which room in the home is causing the most distress. That’s where the cleaning up begins. It’s rarely a simple process. Whether or not you’re a hoarder, you’d be forgiven for feeling a good dose of Jewish guilt for getting rid of your things, whether they be clothes, kitchenware, or sentimental items.”
Throwing items away involves a heavy dose of decision-making, which can be daunting, says Cohen. “Uncertainty makes us keep things that in all probability we won’t use or need in the future.” She guides clients in deciding what to get rid of, and whether to sell or donate items.
“If something doesn’t bring you joy, don’t feel guilty about it, just say goodbye to it with gratitude,” suggests Mendelow. Be mindful of how it once served you, but recognise that it no longer has a purpose in your life. By being honest about whether the things you’re holding onto are bringing value and upliftment to your life, you free yourself from the weight of unneeded possessions.
While it’s rooted in a practical prohibition, clearing the chametz in your home before Pesach also has psychological and spiritual implications. It inevitably brings us closer to G-d and to our purpose in life. “Chametz – in comparison to matzah – represents the ego, the inflated ‘I’, the sins and wrongdoings that I tend to commit because of my sense of entitlement, self-dependence, and so on,” says Rabbi Yehuda Stern of Sydenham Shul.
“Today, we aren’t living in Egypt, but we all still experience a sense of slavery and addiction to elements, character traits, and social pressure that we know is not ‘us’,” he says. “Every year, as we clear out the chametz, we are able to release ourselves again from the negativity it represents, and to return to our true selves which will be free to behave as we choose based on the morals and values that Judaism teaches us.
“The theme of Pesach centres on the ideas of spiritual freedom, overcoming personal limitations, and ridding our homes of chametz,” says Fortes. “These ideas have so many connections to the psychological concept of letting go. For many of us, bondage represents the mental and emotional ties to the past from which we long to break free. Decluttering and discarding outdated objects creates space, induces the letting go process, and brings a sense of freedom and openness for what comes next.”
By ridding ourselves of the vanity chametz presents, and by letting go of the clutter in our homes and by extension, our lives, we attain the kind of freedom that cannot be confined by anything – even a pandemic.
Our sages teach of the obligation of every Jew to ask, “When will my actions reach those of our illustrious patriarchs and matriarchs?” We see the prototype of kindness at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, when Abraham and Sarah display remarkable hospitality towards three strangers travelling through the desert. Abraham bows down to each of them, and presents a more elaborate banquet than Bill Gates served this week at his daughter’s wedding – each guest received his own tongue. Why was this necessary? One tongue would have been sufficient. Why does Abraham go to such lengths to make each of the guests feel like a king? What motivated Abraham’s behaviour?
The Midrash describes Abraham’s meeting with Sheim, the son of Noach. Abraham asks Sheim, “What did you and your family do for the year you were in the Ark?” Sheim answers, “We were all involved with the kindness of feeding the animals 24/7”. Abraham realised that the foundation of the new world G-d was starting was kindness – olam chesed yibaneh (the world is built on kindness). Hashem’s training for the people who would build this new world was constant acts of kindness.
Abraham reasoned that if Hashem valued the kindness done to animals in the Ark, how much more so would he value it when the kindness was done to human beings who are created betzelem elokim (with a spark of the divine). Avraham clearly saw the fingerprints of the creator in the world. He saw the spark of Hashem in himself, and he was then able to see the spark of Hashem in others. Only those who recognise their own G-dly soul will recognise it in the human beings around them. Avraham and Sarah’s kindness wasn’t simply to help those less fortunate than themselves, they saw the divine spark in every human being, and they treated their guests like royalty, impressing upon them their own self-worth and uniqueness. Their kindness was designed to uplift people, to raise them up to recognise their inner greatness.
This is different to how most of us see others. We usually have zero tolerance for those who are slightly different to us in any way. We need to follow the example of our patriarchs and matriarchs in doing true acts of kindness by seeing G-d’s presence in the world, identifying the divine spark in ourselves, and recognising it in others.
In the brave steps of Abraham
In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.
The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.
While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.
Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.
At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.
My kind of hero
The world loves a hero. Every season, Hollywood invents new superheroes to fill the box-office coffers. Today, we even have a Jewish girl as the latest superhero. Now, superheroes are fantastic, but you’ve got to admit, they’re over the top, rather otherworldly and, realistically speaking, out of touch and out of reach. We can fantasise about flying through the skies in our capes, climbing skyscrapers with our webs, saving the world, or rescuing damsels in distress, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than wistful daydreaming. What bearing does it have on me and my life, me and my problems? Not much.
That’s why Noah always appealed to me. He comes across as a real-life hero, real in the sense of being human rather than superhuman and therefore realistically possible to emulate.
Rashi describes Noah as a man of small faith who had doubts whether the flood would really happen. He didn’t enter the Ark until the rains started and the floodwaters pushed him in. That explains why some people look down on Noah, especially when they compare him to other Biblical giants, like Abraham or Moses.
Personally, this is what makes Noah my kind of hero. He’s real. He’s human. He has doubts, just like you and me. Noah is a regular guy, plagued by doubts, and struggles with his faith. Which is precisely what makes him a hero. Because the fact is that, at the end of the day, his personal uncertainties notwithstanding, Noah does the job. He has faults and foibles, but he builds the Ark, shleps in all the animals, saves civilisation, and goes on to rebuild a shattered world. Doubts, shmouts, he did what had to be done!
Noah could easily be the guy next door. He is one of us. His greatness is, therefore, achievable. It’s not “pie in the sky”. His heroism can be emulated. If Abraham and Moses seem the superhero types too far-fetched for us ordinary mortals to see as practical role models, then Noah resonates with realism. After all, he had his doubts too, just like you and me.
There is an old Yiddish proverb that nobody died from an unanswered question. We can live with unanswered questions. It’s not the end of the world. The main thing isn’t to allow ourselves to become paralysed by our doubts. We can still do what must be done, in spite of our doubts.
Noah, the reluctant hero, reminds us that you don’t have to be fearless to get involved. You don’t have to be a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. You don’t have to be holy to keep kosher, nor do you have to be a professor to come to a shiur.
His faith may have been shaky. Perhaps he was a bit wobbly in the knees. But the bottom line is, he got the job done. My hero.
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