Parashat Sh’mini 5779
Delivered March 29, 2019
You sit down to write out your daily to-do list. You reach for a pen, only to find that it isn’t working. It’s dried out. Do you then, (A) throw the pen away without any hesitation? (B) put the pen back in the same drawer that you took it from? (C) stare at it intently, thank it for its service, and then carefully place it in the garbage pail?
You are folding your laundry, and as you put some socks away notice that several have become threadbare. Do you then, (A) laugh to yourself, “Who cares if my socks have holes, they’re in my shoes most of the time!” At which point, you stuff them into a dresser drawer, keeping them in circulation far past their prime? (B) unceremoniously toss them in the garbage pail? (C) fold them quietly, noticing what gifts they have given you during their lifetime, thereby placing them in the trash, while you say thank you, now aware how even the most mundane objects make it possible to live the life with which you are currently blessed?
To paraphrase from Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, every object we use contains an energy,a personality, which is a gift, enabling you to live your fullest life. Human beings are programmed to acquire. Yet, in our developed world, we are not out there hunting dinner, or searching for materials with which to build our shelter. We have developed complex systems to provide our clothing, shelter, and food. But we have not lost the hunter-gatherer mentality. And so we collect things. For some, we curate careful collections of antiques, first edition books, baseball cards, some sort of chatchka to remind us of different trips. Some collections are mindless and end up taking more space than they should, for example that pile of New Yorker magazines I keep telling myself I’ll read.
Kondo proposes that we should take the material objects around us and evaluate them. Based on the evaluation, we can then determine if we should love it or pitch it. The question she invites her readers to ask the object is “Does this spark joy?” That sweater that still has the store tags on it. Are you going to wear it? Does it bring you joy? Then keep it, and put it on before Winter is too far behind us. That shelf of books from your college days: Do they bring you joy, good memories, help remind you some of what you learned? If not, thank those volumes for their service and take them to Goodwill. Kondo’s derives this methodology out of the etiquette of worship in Shinto belief and practice. As is consistent with Shintoism, a shrine is a sacred space, and everything within it is energized with holiness. Kondo believes that we should treat our living spaces as such, too.
Kondo’s approach has really sparked something. People, whether fully or in part, are adopting a more minimalistic way of living. Friends talk about only keeping a capsule wardrobe, others have rediscovered the library over the bookstore. I even saw a tip jar in a coffee shop that had a sign which read, “Does your loose change bring you joy? If not, deposit it here.”
I would place Kondo’s message in the self-help category, a genre of books, websites, magazine articles, and podcasts that grab people’s attention for a period, help in some ways, and in others end up on a dusty shelf with other past volumes about fad diets or different ways to improve your relationships. Some of these books have real worth, and on a personal level, have stayed with me. Steven Covey’s work endures. While not for me, Tony Robbin’s approach has saved lives. I know couples who say that their relationships improved after reading Deborah Tannen’s books about communication. I give out copies of David Allen’s book Getting Things Done to stressed out colleagues.
The self-help category is important it offers a mirror of your life as it could be. You know how you would like to be as a parent, as a friend, as a leader or professional, and but you are not there, yet. These resources are road maps to a land of greater perfection. And sometimes they work, and sometimes they’re a little silly. But they endure because they touch something deep inside of us—a desire for wholeness.
Now, you know what comes next: This desire for wholeness is nothing new; the want for wholeness is as old as our Jewish tradition. God offers it to the Israelites in the form of the Covenant. God swears an oath to our ancestors to redeem them from the land of Egypt, to take them out of their imperfect state, and guide them through the wilderness, to a land that flows with milk and honey. Liberation and the path to wholeness are the key messages of every self-help volume. In our tradition, God redeems Israel, giving Torah at Sinai—a guide book for how to live in sacred, covenental relationship. “If you observe these laws and precepts, then you will settle and dwell in the land.” Follow the instructions for how to live a most righteous life, everything from the laws of kashrut to the ethical imperatives of how you are to treat your workers, your neighbors, and yourself, and you will find that wholeness.
The Prophets approached Israel with this same desire to inspire living that would lead to wholeness. This week is Shabbat Parah, a special Shabbat prior to Passover. Because of this designation, we traditionally read a different passage of Torah and a different Haftarah. The special Haftarah is from Ezekiel. The Prophet begins by noting how the People of Israel have strayed from God’s ways. Once the community had settled in the Land of Israel, they defiled the land with their ways and deeds. For that reason, God exiled the People from the Land, scattering them among foreign nations. Because the People of Israel failed to follow God’s commandments, they were living in a state of exile, a state of incompleteness. But Ezekiel argues that this is not what God desires. God wants God’s people to live on the land. God desires wholeness. The Prophet says:
וְנָתַתִּ֤י לָכֶם֙ לֵ֣ב חָדָ֔שׁ וְר֥וּחַ חֲדָשָׁ֖ה אֶתֵּ֣ן בְּקִרְבְּכֶ֑ם וַהֲסִ֨רֹתִ֜י אֶת־לֵ֤ב הָאֶ֙בֶן֙ מִבְּשַׂרְכֶ֔ם וְנָתַתִּ֥י לָכֶ֖ם לֵ֥ב בָּשָֽׂר׃ And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26
Call it a spiritual heart transplant. Our current status is to walk around with a lev ha-even, a heart of stone. But God can transform that into a new, beating heart. The new heart makes it capable for the People to follow God’s instructions, which will guide the People back to the land. God knows our imperfections, that at times we can be more Pharaoh-like than Israelite, walking about with hardened hearts. But God wants us to live in the Promised Land. Ezekiel is concerned with the interior transformation of the People, which is really all about spiritual renewal. “The result of the [spiritual heart transplant] is that the People are made capable of unswerving obedience to all the commandments of the Torah… In effect this is a complete fulfillment of what is implied in the formula of election: You shall be My people, and I will be Your God” (Lindblom, Prophecy in Ancient Israel, 391).
Ezekiel proposes the possibility of spiritual renewal, but stops short of promising it. God gives the capability for sacred living, but people have to act on it.
In the Jewish tradition, we express our commitment to God, and our commitment to wholeness via the commandments. The commandments are what we do as Jews of faith and conscience as our expression of striving toward holiness. The promise of wholeness lies within our actions and our behavior.
Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, carries this message forward when he writes, “When the person of a higher soul suffers a loss of faith in the power of his own identity, then he will walk about gloomy, he will be desolate, and the luster of the whole world will be diminished for him.” The experience of exile is a personal one. And we possess the remedy, as well. Again, Rav Kook: An individual can “Turn back in a higher penitence, and regaining the glory of his faith in his higher powers, which stir in him always, his spirit will revive and be brightened and all the worlds that reflect his disposition will be filled with splendor and light,” (Abraham Isaac Kook, 215).
If you find yourself exiled—from God, from the Land, from your community, from your relationships, from your family, from yourself—the solution lies in the process of t’shuvah, of repentance and renewal. In recommitting ourselves to righteous behavior, through the power of our own spirits, we will can be revived, we can experience brightness, splendor, and light. We can claim that spiritual heart transplant. We can spark joy for ourselves and for one another.
Wholeness is the goal, because we experience exile and imperfection. I adore the insights gained out of the self-help world. And, I also love that our tradition can help you get there. Our distinct path is through the commandments. By way of practices that offer rootedness, and by moral precepts that instruct.