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A time to de-chametz our lives

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Religion

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.

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Religion

The never-ending voice

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And Charlton Heston came down from Mount Sinai and gave us the ten commandments. Oops! Sorry, make that Moses. And he was carrying the tablets with the Big 10, repeated this week in Deuteronomy as part of Moses’ review of the past 40 years. He describes how G-d spoke those words in a mighty voice that didn’t end.

Rashi writes that Moses is contrasting G-d’s voice with human voices. The finite voice of a human being, even a Pavarotti, will fade and falter. It cannot go on forever. But the voice of the Almighty didn’t end, didn’t weaken. It remained strong throughout.

Is this all the great prophet had to teach us about the voice of G-d? That it was a powerful baritone? Is the greatness of the Infinite One, that he didn’t suffer from shortness of breath, that He didn’t need a few puffs of Ventolin? Is this a meaningful motivation for the Jews to accept the Torah?

Moses was the greatest of all prophets. He foresaw what no other prophet could see. Perhaps he saw his people becoming caught up in the civilization of ancient Greece, in the beauty, culture, philosophy, and art of the day. And they might question, “Is Torah still relevant?”

Perhaps he foresaw Jews empowered by the industrial revolution, where they might have thought Torah to be somewhat backward. Or maybe it was during the Russian Revolution, where faith and religion were deemed to be absolutely primitive.

Maybe Moses saw our own generation, with space shuttles and satellites, teleprompters and technology. And he saw young people questioning whether the good book still spoke to them.

And so, Moses tells us that the voice that thundered from Sinai was no ordinary voice. This was a voice that wasn’t only powerful at the time, it didn’t end. And it still rings out, still resonates, and speaks to each of us in every generation and every part of the world.

Revolutions come and go, but revelation is eternal. The voice of Sinai continues to proclaim eternal truths that never become passé or irrelevant. Honour your parents, revere them, look after them in their old age. Live moral lives, don’t tamper with the sacred fibre of family life. Dedicate one day every week, and keep that day holy. Stop the madness. Turn your back on the rat race, and rediscover your humanity and your children. Don’t be guilty of greed, envy, dishonesty, or corruption.

Are these ideas and values dated? Are these commandments tired or irrelevant? On the contrary. They speak to us now as perhaps never before.

Does anyone know this today better than us South Africans?

The G-dly voice has lost none of its strength, none of its majesty. The mortal voice of man declines and fades into oblivion. Politicians and spin-doctors come and go, but the heavenly sound reverberates down the ages.

Moses knew what he was saying. Torah is truth, and truth is forever. The voice of G-d shall never be stilled.

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Religion

Memory versus history

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Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. After Shabbos, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.

But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was less than 80 years ago! For more than 19 centuries, we have been remembering and observing this event, and it has become the saddest day in our calendar. Why? Why not let bygones be bygones? It’s history. What was, was. Why keep revisiting old and painful visions?

They say that Napoleon was once passing through the Jewish ghetto in Paris, and heard sounds of crying and wailing emanating from a synagogue. He stopped to ask what the lament was about. He was told that the Jews were remembering the destruction of their Temple. “When did it happen?” asked the emperor. “Some 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot their past would be destined to forever have a future.

Elie Wiesel famously once said that Jews have never had history. We have memory. History can become a book, a museum, and forgotten antiquities. Memory is alive, memories reverberate, and memory guarantees our future.

Even amidst the ruins, we refused to forget. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As they led the Jews into captivity, they sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry of? Their lost wealth, homes, and businesses? No. They cried for Zion and Jerusalem. “If I forget thee ‘O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.” They were not weeping for themselves or their lost liberties but for the heavenly city and holy temple. Amidst the bondage, they aspired to rebuild, amidst the ruins, they dreamt of returning.

And because we refused to forget Jerusalem, we did return. And because we refused to accept defeat or accept our exile as a historical fait accompli, we have rebuilt proud Jewish communities the world over, while our victors have been vanquished by time. Today, there are no more Babylonians, and the people who now live in Rome aren’t the Romans who destroyed the second temple. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai (the people of Israel live).

Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. Indeed, the Talmud assures us, “Whosoever mourns for Jerusalem, will merit to witness her rejoicing.” We dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning this Saturday night and Sunday. Forego the movies and the restaurants. Sit down on a low seat to mourn with your people; and perhaps even more importantly, to remember. And, please G-d, He will restore those glorious days and rebuild His own everlasting house soon.

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Religion

Exile is a state of being

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In parshas Massei, the Torah traces our journey in the desert by listing all 42 camps that we passed through. This is a forerunner for Jewish history. Even the most superficial knowledge of Jewish history reveals that a large chunk of it has been spent in exile. Under the nations of the world, the Jewish people suffered immensely. How are we meant to understand this? There are four main points to appreciate.

Chazal tell us that the Jewish people are so beloved by Hashem, that when they were sent into exile for their sins, Hashem accompanied them. The greatest demonstration of His love is the fact that the Jewish people have survived almost 2 000 years of persecution and numerous attempts to annihilate us. So great is this miracle, it surpasses the collective miracles of the exodus of Egypt and our wandering in the desert and in the land of Israel.

Second, when the Jews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, their survival was supernatural – they were wholly dependent on Hashem. He rained down bread from the sky, provided a well of water, and protected us with seven miraculous clouds. This was the education needed to sear into our consciousness the perspective that Hashem is the source of everything, and we must strive to fulfil His will.

Land, prosperity, and institutions of statehood were put at the Jewish people’s disposal not as goals in themselves, but as a means for the fulfilment of the Torah. When Jews lost sight of their true purpose and began to emulate the ideals of the nations around them, worshipping wealth and prosperity, they were deprived of those things that they had begun to worship, leaving their land with only the Torah to guide them.

Exile was meant, first and foremost, to benefit and perfect us. The Jewish people witnessed powerful empires disappear while we endured, devoid of might and majesty, but loyal to Hashem. How many times have Jews been offered a doorway to earthly pleasure and security if only they renounce their loyalty to G-d? How many times did Jews scorn the lure of wealth and pleasure and even sacrificed their most precious treasures in this world – their wives, children, brothers and sisters – for Hashem?

Chazal tell us that a third benefit of exile was to inspire conversion. Indeed, there have been many great converts in our history.

Fourth, the Jewish people were scattered throughout the world for our protection. If we were all under the jurisdiction of one ruler, he would attempt to destroy us all.

Exile isn’t just banishment from Israel. Exile is a state of being that also applies to individuals. Every person experiences tranquil periods when he finds it easy to learn Torah and pray with concentration. Yet when times are hard, he struggles. It’s specifically at these times that he mustn’t become empty of Torah and prayer, rather, he must strive to sanctify “desert” periods.

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