This was my sermon this past Friday night. Laundry and dishes are done now, and houseguests gone, but the shoes remain.
“As you begin the year, so shall you end it.”
I’m not sure exactly where this adage comes from, or even whether it refers to the Jewish New Year or the secular one. But around this time of year, it gets lodged in my brain, reminding me to tie up loose ends and take care of business before the sounding of the shofar. We are fortunate that the beginning of our year stretches from the beginning of Elul to the end of Yom Kippur—forty days—giving us plenty of time to get our affairs in order. Even if we hit the snooze alarm until Rosh Hashana, we still have the ten days of repentance to make things right. Now is the allotted time to make apologies and write thank you notes, to settle debts and give to tzedakah, so that we can begin the year with a clean slate.
And now is also the time to clean the house.
For some reason, that is what I think of when I hear, “As you begin the year, so shall you end it.” Though I’ve never been much of a neat-freak, I wouldn’t want to go to Rosh Hashana services with the bed unmade or the dishes undone. In fact, when I get blocked writing sermons, I might even clean out the drawers of the fridge or empty out the closet for Goodwill. (My other procrastinatory activity is cooking, which sometimes counterbalances the cleaning, as I teach myself to caramelize onions or make pudding from scratch).
This year, I didn’t have much time to procrastinate, and I was fortunate enough to be able to hire someone to do a good deep clean of my new apartment in preparation for the holiday. The cleaning, however, took place on Wednesday, a good four days before the start of the New Year, giving me WAY too much time to mess it up again.
By Sunday morning, the laundry basket was overflowing and the dishwasher was full. The kitchen countertops, just days earlier scrubbed clean, even under the burners of the stove, were smeared with traces of turmeric and pomegranate. There were onion peels and thyme leaves scattered across the kitchen floor. Boxes of new shoes were stacked against the wall of the bedroom, waiting either to be worn for the holiday, or sent back to the store. Piles of paper were strewn everywhere: bills, magazines I need to cancel, and notes for my sermons.
I had houseguests too, adding suitcases, toiletries, and extra towels to the mix. It was a mess, and it made me anxious about the starting the New Year off on the wrong foot.
I didn’t grow up in a super neat household. My mother decorated our house with placards that read, “Dull women have immaculate homes,” or, “My house is clean enough to be healthy and messy enough to be happy.” Our house was a happy tornado of Play Doh, Matchbox cars, and Barbie heads; every surface covered with family photographs, notes scribbled on the back of junk mail envelopes, and piles upon piles of unread magazines.
So I trace my obsession with cleaning for the holiday to a series called All of a Kind Family, which my mother and I read when I was growing up. The books told the story of five sisters and a brother growing up Jewish in New York City at the turn of the century. In one chapter, the girls are charged with cleaning the house for Shabbat. (The brother is still a baby at this point). As they dust and mop and polish, one sister turns to the other and tells her the legend of the Shabbat angels:
Every Shabbat, when a man comes home from synagogue, there are two angels with him, one on each shoulder: a good angel and a bad angel. If the house is spotless, the table set, and the children smiling and freshly scrubbed, the good angel says, “May it be so next Shabbat,” and the bad angel has to say, “Amen.” But if the house is messy and the children unruly, the bad angel will say, “May it be so next Shabbat,” and the good angel has to say, “Amen.”
I have a number of problems with this story: it puts an undue pressure on the women of the house to get things in order while the men are away at shul. It places too much emphasis on an ideal of domestic bliss and makes no mention of the spiritual aspects of Shabbat.
It also implies that one can get caught in a cycle of bad Shabbatot or bad years. In this season of change, we need to know that, no matter how Shabbat or Rosh Hashana starts, if we truly desire to change our ways, we can turn things around, and make the next one better.
This story also ignores one crucial thing: that life is messy. Life with six kids in a tenement on the Lower East Side must have been messy. Having three kids under the age of six in a Pennsylvania suburb was definitely messy. And life today, even in a home all by myself, is messy. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Messiness can be a reminder of all of our blessings.
As we mopped chocolate off the counter and scraped pomegranate stains off the white cabinets, I realized that this mess was a happy one. I was blessed to have loved ones spending the holiday with me. We were blessed to have abundant food to eat. I felt blessed that I had finally made an entire meal in which I burned nothing and everyone took seconds. Even the piles of paper accumulating in the corners were a reminder that I was finally doing the meaningful, creative work that I had longed for over the last few years.
Which is not to say that all messiness is good. No celebration is without its reminders of who is missing, who is hurting, and who might not be with us next year. There is always uncertainty on the horizon. What kind of a mess will our lives be next year at this time? But that is all the more reason not to postpone our festivities until the house is clean, or the transitional period is over. We celebrate even in the midst of life’s messes.
This time of year is also when we are encouraged to go deeper into the messiness of life. Teshuva is not a neat process. It is kind of like cleaning out the top drawer, the one where we throw everything that cannot be categorized or made useful. If we leave everything as it is, no one will be able to see the mess from the outside, but we know it’s there. Teshuva is when we dump the drawer all over the floor and figure out what is worth keeping, what needs to be fixed, and what must be thrown away. The result is that things get messier before we can get organized.
And we never get it exactly right on the first try. We know that not everything we put back in the drawer is worth keeping; we know that, the next time we need something, it will be that exact thing that we threw away; and we know that, by next week, we’ll have tossed something else useless in there because we don’t know what else to do with it. That top drawer is never going to be exactly how we want it. But once in awhile, we dump it out, we explore its contents, and we try again.
Teshuva requires us to take a hard look at the messiness in ourselves, knowing that we might only be able to attack one cluttered corner at a time, knowing that we are making new messes even as we clean up the old ones. And teshuva requires us to sort out the messes we’ve made with other people. This might mean opening old wounds, making ourselves vulnerable to the people we have hurt or who have hurt us, exposing ourselves to the possibility of pain and rejection. Teshuva is messy. But teshuva, that digging deeper into the mess, is also the only way we can really get things cleaned up.
“As you begin the year, so shall you end it.”
Regardless of what we’ve gotten in order and what we have yet to scrub clean, the confessions of the High Holy Days give us a chance to start fresh. Isaiah tells us, “Be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow-white. Be they red as dyed wool, they can become like fleece” (Isaiah 1:18).
Teshuva offers us the opportunity to wipe the slate clean. But there’s a reason we do it every year. Life is messy, we are messy, and as we begin the new year, it is hopeless to pray that we’ll be able to keep our lives free of mess for an entire year. Rather, let us pray for the courage to live fully within that mess, to dig deep into it when we need to, to sort things out, and to embrace it when we can, to find the blessings within it.