Rabbi Ariana delivered this sermon January 26/20 Shvat Shabbat morning for Parshat Yitro, at Homewood Friends.
I want to tell you a story, (as told by Eliezer Steinman.)
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement in the 18th century, was once asked: "Why is it that chassidim burst into song and dance at the slightest provocation? Is this the behavior of a healthy individual?"
The Baal Shem Tov responded with a story:
Once, a musician came to town—a musician of great but unknown talent. He stood on a street corner and began to play.
Those who stopped to listen could not tear themselves away, and soon a large crowd stood enthralled by the glorious music whose equal they had never heard. Before long they were moving to its rhythm, and the entire street was transformed into a dancing mass of humanity.
A man walking a ways away, out of reach of the music, wondered: Has the world gone mad? Why are the townspeople jumping up and down, waving their arms and turning in circles in middle of the street?
"Chassidim," concluded the Baal Shem Tov, "are moved by the melody that issues forth from every creature in G!d's creation. If this makes them appear mad to those with less who cannot understand, should they therefore cease to dance?”
The problems with what this story claims about “sanity” and “wellness,” sometimes the things that bring joy are surprising, hard to measure, unexpected.
Over the past month, Ever and I have been deep in the cleaning of our home. We bought and moved into our house at the end of July, and then a sort of big deal set of holidays came around in September, maybe you’ve heard of them, and blasted a path through the house. Many of you saw our home in various states of this moving in, including one August/Elul song circle where there was a big hole in the wall and we nestled folding chairs between boxes of High Holy Day prayer books.
So this past month, we dug through closets, hung art, and put papers where papers go. We vacuum corners untouched for decades, sorted books, placed dangly earrings in a place reserved for just them.
I will share with you today, before the Torah, Hashem, and our beloved community, that we have an entire box marked “sentimental backpacks.” Yes, that would be a box filled with preschool fish shaped backpacks, a 3rd grade Cal Ripkin backpack, a thrifted army tote with very cool and very punk buttons from high school, a handmade quilted messenger bag that was the subject of a college admission essay. If you ever wondered what a Cancer/Pisces household was like, it’s a box marked “sentimental backpacks.”
And if you’ve turned on Netflix, or been on any corner of the internet over the past month, you may have noticed a new show that has captured America’s New Years Resolution attention: “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” Across the world, people are cleaning their houses, because this professional is showing them how. The ikar, the core message of her work is to:
Keep only those things that speak to the heart, and discard items that no longer spark joy. Thank them for their service – then let them go.
This has resulted in a wave of house cleaning, donations to thrift stores, think pieces, memes, and questions about what does it mean to let something go, and how do you know when something “sparks joy.”
Kondo on her website writes:
People around the world have been drawn to this philosophy not only due to its effectiveness, but also because it places great importance on being mindful, introspective and forward-looking.
The show follows Marie Kondo as she goes into American homes, and helps their inhabitants confront the clutter, mess, and overwhelm of life. Sounds familiar, like grandpa Yitro in this week’s parsha, who comes into Moses’ life, sees his overwhelm at a system that doesn’t work, and brings in help from the outside, to establish a system that does work. This week’s parsha shows us two systems of rule--one that a human being tries to shoulder alone and fails, and one that from the very outset is given to the entire people.
Kondo’s demand to let things go was met with derision by many. At one point she is quoted as saying that one should keep only 30 books. “I should only keep 30 books?!” the internet panicked.
Instead, she explained:
The most important part of this process of tidying is to always think about what you have and about the discovery of your sense of value, what you value that is important. So it’s not so much what I personally think about books. The question you should be asking is what do you think about books.
How we structure our days, our homes, is a reflection of our values. When those values are challenged, and we react in anger, we are able to see where we truly stand. Clarify our values.
Marie Kondo’s question, grounded in Shinto teaching from Japan, asks us to see our obligation to each object, acknowledge the identity and spirit in each physical object. “Does it bring you joy” does not demand if an item brings simple pleasure of the immediate, but does it bring a lasting, long-term feeling. So perhaps we start there--that there is something about mindfulness, introspection, and anticipation that are the roots of joy. Joy is a nuanced emotion, with depth, texture, and is not just about being happy.
Margaret Dilloway wrote in a piece for the Huffington Post this Tuesday, “What White, Western Audiences Don’t Understand About Marie Kondo’s ‘Tidying Up’” that core to the practices Kondo describes, thanking objects for the role they play in our lives, if only passing, is rooted deeply in religious practice. Dilloway writes:
Kami are Shinto spirits present everywhere — in humans, in nature, even in inanimate objects. At an early age, I understood this to mean that all creations were miracles of a sort.
Kondo teaches that material goods are not a means for attaining happiness and urges people to appreciate what they have, a method she intends to lead to contentment, not burnout.
Happiness cannot be the only element of joy. Long term satisfaction, fulfilling commitments, feeling aligned in our values, connected to the past and the future, are all elements of joy beyond an ecstatic feeling. Happiness is great, sure! But it is not the only pursuit. Joy is a feeling of being in alignment, that flows from a meaningful life. You must not be happy to be joyful.
Take Yom Kippur, for example. That is a joyous day! The most joyful day of the year for the Jewish people, because teshuva, return, is truly possible. It is not a day of fun, of relaxing, but it can still be a joyous day, in which we take stock of our spiritual lives, do a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting for the soul, do a spiritual inventory.
And take mitzvot, commandments, things we are drawn close to and obligated to! They can bring joy, but maybe not always happiness. That might be ok, actually. There are 39 melachot, 39 kinds of labor forbidden on Shabbat. And our wise teachers drew fences upon fences around those 39 melachot found in Torah to keep us from doing any activity that might be accidentally creative labor on Shabbat.
No creative labor on Shabbat--this translates for some as no cooking food on Shabbat. Meaning cooking happens during the work week, squeezed into free hours.
No work means no carrying on Shabbat--this means like my great Zeide did, some pin their house key onto their shirt instead of carrying it in their hand or pocket, or spend the energy to erect and maintain an eruv, a border wire that permits carrying.
No creation means no making fire--or turning off and on lights, meaning some plan far in advance with automatic timers, or leave certain lights on over Shabbat.
How is this an oneg Shabbat, delighting in Shabbat? What’s happy about all this?!
What if we realized we were obligated to mitzvot not just because they made us feel good? For some of us, our relationship to mitzvot is one of learning, exploring, and taking on the practices that feel like commandments--we opt into to a relationship with mitzvot. For others of us, we feel chiyyuv, obligated to mitzvot, from a force of history or G!d greater than our own moment in time. Regardless of how your approach mitzvot, there is joy that comes from observance, that doesn’t mean you’re happy. You’re in shul on Yom Kippur, or you’re hustling and rearranging your life to make Shabbat morning or a dinner happen. We don’t do mitzvot because they’re like candy, we do mitzvot because we are obligated to them, to other people, to Hashem. If we think we only do things because they feel good then we are doing a cheaper version of what life could be. There must be more to life than just pursuing fleeting happiness.
A core critique I’ve heard in response to Marie Kondo’s Art of Tidying Up is that being able to get to choose what you get rid of is a luxury for the well off. What about when you cannot afford to let go of that which does not bring you joy? What about when you’re forced to get rid of what does? What about when the choices you make are for survival, not your ethical values beyond that? In a piece called “Can You Marie Kondo When You’re Poor” by Keshia Naurana Badalge on Vice, she writes that:
Poverty necessitates a little bit of hoarding, sometimes.” She explains that “Marie Kondo also mentions to thank the objects you own that you don’t like, for they teach you about what you do like. My issue with this: What if one has little money to buy things they like.
In this piece, the author is not ready to get rid of this philosophy all together.
I agree with Marie Kondo’s philosophy of a clear space giving you a clear mind. But I was constantly hungry and looking for food, and this incessant worry about money is the biggest obstacle to a joyful life.
All people have the capacity to take stock of their spiritual lives, their material lives, and see how their values are playing out, it is a luxury to be able to make decisions based on this information. When we look to the poor to answer for poverty, we are asking the wrong question.
We must eradicate poverty, not the poor.
The question must be instead “does capitalism bring me joy?” The answer is no, of course, because the values you hold are not in line with such a world. This week’s parsha reminds us that a small group of people’s burnout, or suffering, is unacceptable to the entire people. For all to be joyful, all must have the resources space, and dignity to thrive. There is more to joy than it being purely personal. Joy is relational.
And then there are the possessions we keep, the things we do, the families or communities we continue to be a part of though they bring us no joy, but because at one point, they helped us survive. The behaviors we hold on to not by choice, but because they kept us from falling over the cliff. For those things, we account, and we offer gratitude for our cleverness that has allowed us to survive.
The work then will present itself, as it always does, when we are weighed down by relationships, practices, and habits we developed years ago, but no longer serve us. Before we begin to lay them down, bag them up, slough them off, we must show gratitude to the things which have helped us make it to this point, or get to a place of communal learning or practice or relationship repair or whatever it may be. The challenge is to get brave enough to lay it down and to name it is no longer serving you.
Maybe you spent years being pushed away, unaccepted, hurt, ignored in religious spaces, and the tool that helped you survive became “I don’t like to be in religious space, I’m not that religious.” Maybe if you’re now finding places where you are rejoiced in, honored, seen, you are challenged to re-discover your spiritual self. Honor that tool of disinterest that protected you from heartbreak. Maybe you developed a lack of trust to survive a lifetime of violence. Maybe if you’re now finding people and chosen family and places where safety becomes a reality, not a story you once heard, you can begin to re-train, and trust your instincts. Honor that tool of vigilance that protected you from pain.
And after you thank those tools, you make a tashlich. You cast off that which is no longer of service to you, is inappropriate to you, clutters your field of vision.
For the mess, the clutter, the objects we keep and the things we are ready to purge, we must offer up gratitude.Gratitude is fundamental to joy.
I believe it is time to stop trying to be happy. I want to invite you to take a serious, analytical look at your life, your behavior. Take a spiritual inventory, a cheshbon hanefesh. It is your life to look at. Account for the choices you make that you are proud of, the relationships that bring you closer to the person you want to be, obligations you fulfill that enrich your community. And look for that which does the opposite. Find that which does not bring you joy, even if it brings you happiness. What happiness is standing in the way of real joy?
Together we can stop asking the white-washed version of the question, “what makes me happy,” and ask instead, “what makes us joyful?” What is the real work that brings our values and ourselves into alignment?
To close as we opened, another chassidic teaching explaining Psalm 126:2-3:
"...then they will say among the nations, 'G‑d has done great things with [the Jews]' Indeed, G‑d has done great things with us; we were joyous."33
Why has G‑d "done great things with us"? Why have we merited redemption?
Because "we were joyful."
Redemption will only come when we are joyful--meaning our actions are aligned with our values. We begin to prepare to move into the month of Adar, and we will sing about the joy that increases in Adar.
In this season, a kavvanah, an intention:
May our actions match our values,
May we find clarity on the world we wish to see and how we are called to move through it,
and may we come to feel true, deep joy.
Kein yehi ratzon, so may it be.