What’s Jewish about Marie Kondo…. Parasha Tzav

The late comedian George Karlin is perhaps best known for his 1972 monologue on the seven words you can never say on television. Quaint. Of course, that was before cable TV and Netflix – now you can hear all those words, and new ones that weren’t even invented in 1972 – on television! George Karlin also performed a monologue satirizing our penchant for accumulating all kinds of stuff. I want to share a bit of that with you tonight.

“That’s all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time.

“A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff. ………And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff.. ….Sometimes you gotta move– gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore. Did you ever notice when you go to somebody else’s house, you never quite feel a hundred percent at home? You know why? No room for your stuff. Somebody else’s stuff is all over the place! And if you stay overnight, unexpectedly, they give you a little bedroom to sleep in. Bedroom they haven’t used in about eleven years. Someone died in it, eleven years ago. And they haven’t moved any of his stuff! Right next to the bed there’s usually a dresser or a bureau of some kind, and there’s NO ROOM for your stuff on it………” 

And recently I learned about a Japanese woman named Marie Kondo  who has become an international celebrity by writing a book on getting rid of that stuff. The book is entitled The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. She even has a reality show on Netflix which helps American families declutter their homes. According to Newsweek magazine, she has developed the Konmarie method which involves dividing your “stuff” into five categories – clothes, books, paper, bathroom-kitchen-garage, and sentimental stuff. Then, in that order you begin by putting everything in a single pile, then go through the stuff in the pile one by one choosing whether to keep or get rid of something by whether each item “sparks joy.” When an item “sparks joy” it is because you feel a certain connection, even love, for that item. She even encourages people to express gratitude toward the stuff that a person is going to discard. She maintains it lessens the feelings of guilt that goes along with separating from your stuff.

Somehow this feels very Jewish to me — and not just the part about “guilt”. The idea of separating “stuff” into categories before deciding what to keep and what to discard – isn’t that how G-d created the world, by separating into categories? The world is just one big mass of “tohu va-vohu’ when G-d begins to separate things out – the dry land from the waters, the light from the darkness,  before moving on to create categories of things, the fish, birds, land animals, humankind. And consider the idea of expressing gratitude even to the shirt you never wore because “the shirt taught you that you do not like to wear shirts like this. By doing this it will become clear what is necessary to you.” It reminds me of the kabbalistic teaching that there are holy sparks scattered about the world from the shattered vessels of creation to be redeemed even in inanimate objects. According to Martin Buber, the 20th century Jewish philosopher and theologian, Chassidism teaches that “even the most profane deed can be done in holiness, and whoever performs it in holiness raises up the sparks. In the clothes you put on, in the implements you use, in the food you eat, in the domestic animals that work for you, in all of these are hidden sparks which yearn for redemption, and if you treat things and beings with care and good will and faithfulness, then you redeem them. G-d gives you the clothing and the food belonging to the root of your soul, so that you may redeem the sparks in them.”

In our parasha this week we read about the sacrifices preformed daily by the Kohens, or priests. The Kohens had to insure the sacrifices brought by the people of Israel were offered properly. He had to be quite careful — a mistake could invalidate the sacrifice, and sacrifices could be expensive. But in addition to being commanded about the offerings, the priests were also commanded to clean up after themselves. Sacrifices left residue – ashes. The priests could not call in a Temple custodian to remove what remained after an offering was burned. He had to do it himself.

Not only were the sacrifices themselves considered holy, the residue they left was considered holy. The priest had to dress in his priestly garments in order to remove the stuff left over. He had to carry it to a holy, pure place, where he deposited it. To put it in kabbalistic terms, even that which we discard as garbage has within holy sparks. Even what we get rid of contains a vestige of the sacred.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism once came to a town for the Days of Awe. He was told that the rabbi of the town led all the confessional prayers with song. When the Baal Shem Tov asked him why he sang these prayers, that rabbi answered: “Imagine a servant cleaning the courtyard of the king. If he loves the king he is very happy cleaning the refuse of the courtyard, and sings and whistles while he works. That is what we are doing when we cleanse our hearts and souls, which are God’s sanctuaries and courtyards.”

On the days of Awe we examine our lives and sweep away our sins. Although there is a certain solemnity to these days, there is also joy, which is expressed in the melodies that we sing. The same can be said of Passover, when we clean our houses. Of courses it is work, but it is a work that should also give us joy as we both literally and figuratively perform the sacred task of cleansing and purifying in anticipation of our Festival of Freedom, which symbolizes a new beginning.

“Cleanliness is next to G-dliness,” goes the saying. Few of us have understood how true that expression is.

Shabbat Shalom