Finding joy with conscious tidying
I sat in my car outside a snowy home. As a rabbi, I’d just come from connecting with some elementary school kids about their lives. Now, I had to transition my mindset. I was about to have the honor of learning with a The new moon, which marks the beginning of the Jewish month. According to tradition, because women did not participate in the sin of the golden calf, they were given the holiday of Rosh Chodesh. It is customary for women not to work on Rosh Chodesh. women’s group that has been meeting for 13 years. The topic: cleansing our souls, cleansing our lives. Integrating the Jewish practices of Mussar (ethical and spiritual character development) with Marie Kondo’s tidying techniques.
I have spent time following both of these introspective gratitude practices. In one season of my life I prioritized tidying, and in a different time period I engaged in soul searching through Mussar. The practices could be seen as separate, but in fact, for me personally, they are deeply linked.
I can look back at different moments and think about where my soul may have been during episodes of intense and necessary tidying (such as moving homes). I can also think about many times in which my soul felt out of alignment for one reason or another and my home reflected the messiness of my inner life.
I grew up in a house where shoe boxes sit upon bookcases and line the hallway. In the home I am creating for my family, I am very conscious (maybe overly so) about what our actual material needs are. My partner and I balance two professional careers, care of our kid and dog, and cleaning stuff we already own! If I reframe the tasks of cooking, cleaning, and recycling as ways to minimize waste, I feel better about how we spend our time. Yet kids accumulate more stuff than adults; since their minds and bodies are constantly growing, so are their needs!
This is where the Marie Kondo approach and Mussar can help (or at least have helped me)! Marie Kondo lists her technique as six easy steps. I’ve matched them with Jewish Mussar middot/value measures:
RULE 1: Commit yourself to tidying up. (Patience – Savlanut, Compassion – Rakhamim, Faith – Emunah)
I think this is perhaps the most important of the KonMarie rules. If you are not ready to commit, it will not be a lifestyle change, and you will continue to need to tidy periodically. For many years I kept clothes, books, or miscellaneous items that held no purpose or function in my life. If it is something given to us, I try and see if it serves a unique purpose in our lives or if it’s something we already have. If it is “better” than the previous item we had, I will then gift those items we’ve outgrown as a family to those in need through our local buy-nothing or yard sale Facebook groups. This level of commitment takes patience (it’s time consuming), compassion for yourself, and a leap of faith!
RULE 2: Imagine your ideal lifestyle. (Equanimity – Menukhat Ha’Nefesh, Simplicity – Histapkut)
I recognize this piece is different for everyone. My ideal lifestyle is nice and tidy functional spaces. I personally have a hard time functioning in chaos. As someone who works from home, it’s one of the reasons I have to escape to coffee shops or libraries to be productive. In order to get to this kind of peace in my own home, everything has to be stored in its place. I ask myself, what would balance look like? Can I achieve simplicity, or is it an ideal?
RULE 3: Finish discarding first. (Gratitude – Hakarat Ha’Tov, Generosity – Nedivut, Responsibility – Akhrayut)
So much of what I have learned from Jewish wisdom teaches that we must come to terms with closure rituals before our next phase can begin. I have found this to be true. Thank the items for having been a part of your life in your time of need and keep moving forward! Remember that you are responsible to make this change!
RULE 4: Tidy by category, not by location. (Enthusiasm – Zerizut, Truth – Emet)
For me this means first admitting there are items of each category all over the house! Putting them together allows you to see what you may need for function and what pieces you may be holding onto even though your life has continued to move forward. Muster all your energy toward it, and recognize what you truly need.
RULE 5: Follow the right order. (Order – Lit. Order. The festive meal conducted on Passover night, in a specific order with specific rituals to symbolize aspects of the Exodus from Egypt. It is conducted following the haggadah, a book for this purpose. The mystics of Sefat also created a seder for Tu B'shvat, the new year of the trees., Moderation – Shevil Ha’zahov, Humility – Anavah, Trust – Bitakhon)
Just like soul searching, tidying takes practice and discernment. Marie Kondo has an order to these actions so that you refine your skills as you continue to do this work in your home and spiritual self. Be honest and trust your instincts.
RULE 6: Ask yourself if it sparks joy. (Honor – Honor, as in kavod av v’em, honoring one’s parents, kavod ha’met, respect for the dead, kavod hatorah, the honor of the Torah., Lovingkindness – Lit. Kindness It is said in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) that the world stands on three things: Torah (learning), Avodah (worship), and Gemilut Hasidim (acts of kindness)., Silence – Sh’tikah)
This is where the dots can be connected between our souls and homes. If we feel complete and whole to have everything about our space feel joyful we will be closer to emitting that feeling we internalized and vice versa.
Perhaps through this tidying process we will be closer to coming out of Lit. Egypt. Because the Hebrew word for narrow is tzar, Mitzrayim is also understood as "narrowness," as in, the narrow and confining places in life from which one emerges physically and spiritually., the narrow places in our lives. Perhaps, if Marie Kondo is right, it will bring us more joy!
Rabbi Elyssa Cherney leads lifecycle rituals for couples and families in Philadelphia who aren’t affiliated with a particular synagogue and runs the site www.tacklingtorah.com to help others connect their Judaism to holy moments in their lives. She is a rabbi at Temple Judea in Bucks County, PA, and a Rukin fellow with www.interfaithfamily.com. She is grateful to her husband Alan and daughter Ava Jane for supporting her in this holy work.