Thursday, Jul 25, 2024

Laundry and Loftiness

A young new mother went to a local shiur whose topic was “Finding Meaning in Diaper-Changing.” The title spoke to her current station in life, and she went hoping to come back with an inspiring new perspective on many of the mundane chores seeming to fill her days - and nights.

The speech was nice, and the speaker mentioned a number of beautiful thoughts. The woman went home thinking that perhaps things would now be different. As the days passed, though, she realized that for all the high-flying thoughts, she still found it difficult to focus on any sublime or deeper message while sitting there with wipes and messy diapers.


Can’t a life of motherhood, of dealing with tantrums, runny noses and laundry, especially with the intention of helping a husband in kollel, be meaningful and not simply mundane?


In truth, the woman is absolutely correct in assuming that a life of motherhood should be immensely meaningful. The problem is that she is going about it the wrong way. The fault is not necessarily her own, but rather that of a world that tries to convince us that if we only listen to the right speech or get the proper hadrachah, we can turn anything into a spiritual and meaningful experience.


One of the great Torah sages was once asked what one should focus on while waving the Arba Minim, the four species taken on Sukkos. The naanuim, waving the Arba Minim in all four directions plus up and down, are known to represent deep mystical secrets. Surely, the questioner expected, there would be some lofty thoughts to dwell upon during this action – at a minimum!


The sage’s response?


“Make sure that while waving the lulav, you don’t poke out the eye of the person standing behind you.”


In other words, while there is no question that every single aspect of Judaism has levels upon levels of depth and meaning to them, those are the meanings behind the actions. The actions themselves, for us living in this world, are often very much a part of this mundane world.


Someone once asked their grandmother, “What did the simple woman in the shtetel think about while she was ironing her husband’s shirt?” (Yes, there were non-electric irons in Europe.)


The shtetel, after all, represented a time and place where even the most simple Jews often lived lives suffused with emunah peshutah, with an awareness of G-d and His presence.


The grandmother smiled and said, “I don’t know about the other women, but when I ironed Zaide’s shirts, I was concentrating on making sure I got all the wrinkles out. And I was especially careful not to burn the shirt!”


The same would seemingly apply to diaper-changing. When we change diapers, our thoughts should be on making sure we get the baby clean and comfortable. When we do laundry, we must surely concentrate on making sure that we separate the darks and lights and bleach only the right loads so as not to ruin any good clothes.


Are there deeper, more esoteric meanings possible to dwell upon while performing these mundane tasks? Should we meditate on the fact that Clorox sounds like the Yiddishklohr,” meaning clear, and that the clean laundry represents clarity in life? Or perhaps that bleaching out stains reminds us how teshuvah can “bleach” our souls, so to speak, so that doing laundry becomes a scared task in bringing us to a cheshbon hanefesh and ultimately to repentance?


Should we use only Huggies diapers so that while changing our baby, we can think about how he will need all the hugs and love we can give him? Or should we use a cheaper store-brand and dwell on the fact that we’re saving money as we’re changing our babies, allowing our husbands to learn another day in kollel with each diaper change?


Seriously, though, the “meaning” to be found in changing diapers is to have a clean baby. Laundry is done so the home can function properly and meals are cooked so the family can eat well. One need not go “Ommmm, ommmmm,” while scrambling an omelet and meditate on G-d’s omniscience to make the action meaningful.


There is meaning in everything we do. Only sometimes is the meaning in such plain sight that we fail to see it because we’re busy looking elsewhere.


All these thoughts came to mind as we entered another Pesach season. Pesach is Zeman Cheiruseinu, a time steeped in meaning and Jewish continuity, a time that should leave us uplifted and inspired until the next Pesach, or hopefully until the ultimate redemption even before then. We work months before Pesach and we spend inordinate amounts of physical, emotional and monetary resources preparing for the chag.


What then? When it comes down to it, when the Yom Tov is over and we’re sitting at the ne’ilas hachag, exhausted and spent, can we all say that we’ve even had the time to dwell upon the many and lofty thoughts surrounding the chag?


While we were crouched in a most awkward position, wielding a shmatta and reeking of ammonia as we tried to scrub a stubborn, caked-on gooey glob from underneath a cabinet, were we supposed to be thinking lofty thoughts or concentrating on getting the job done right?


When we spent Yom Tov, and then Chol Hamoed,cooking, baking, cooking, baking, and then cooking some more, were we supposed to leave it all and instead sit and reflect on the awesome Hand of Hashem revealed during the exodus from Egypt which will, im yirtzeh Hashem, any day soon, reveal itself to us again with the geulah sheleimah?


While trying to decide where to take the family on Chol Hamoed – concurrently changing a diaper, breaking up a fight, lending an ear to great-aunt Elsie’s complaints over the phone about the horrible food served in her hotel during the first days, and listening to five children asking, “Where are we going today?” – were we supposed to have focused our thoughts inwards and upwards on the spiritual significance of burnt hotel food (korban olah?) or the exorbitant price of zoo membership versus the free local park (korban olah veyored?)?


Surely, we should take every opportunity to use this wonderful time to recharge our spiritual batteries when possible. Chol Hamoed wasactually meant to give us more free time to spend growing closer to Hashem and learning Torah on these auspicious days. Some of us can listen to shiurim while cleaning before Pesach, and the Sedorim and Yom Tov seudos will hopefully provide ample time for inspiring divrei Torah and zemiros, but, practically speaking, sometimes amidst all the wiping of runny noses, mediating who gets which turn to do what or sit where, through the fog of sheer exhaustion, we reach the end of the chag and we wonder what exactly we are taking with us from the whole experience.


A fellow I know once had a baalas teshuvah over for a Shabbos meal. This particular individual was busy with his own growing family, ka”h, was not particularly kiruv-oriented, and had never really hosted any baalei teshuvah before. Understandably, he was somewhat nervous and anxious before Shabbos, hoping everything would go smoothly and that their guest would find the meal inspiring.


Friday night, the family sang Shalom Aleichem and the host recited Kiddush. Then they washed for hamotzie. While still cutting up the challah, one child – who’d already received his piece – asked for the tomato dip. The next child needed his fish cut up. A third child wanted a drink. A fourth child spilled her drink.


It was the usual busy scene as the family settled into the seudah, and while no one was doing anything wrong, per se, the host kept wondering when it would finally quiet down at least a drop so he can perhaps share a nice, short vort on the parsha or at least sing something with the children. So far, there hadn’t been any opportunity for anything more spiritual than doling out olive dip and giving out another slice of challah.


By this time, the wife of the host had gone into the kitchen with their guest to prepare the next course. It was more than a few minutes later when the wife returned with her husband’s bowl of soup. As she placed it in front of him, she apologized for the delay in bringing in the second course. “She’s in the kitchen, crying,” the hostess whispered, referring to the guest. “I had to spend a few minutes with her.”


“Is everything okay?” the host asked, alarmed.


“Oh, sure,” his wife reassured him. “It’s nothing bad. She just started telling me how touched she is by everything, what this means to her, and she just burst into tears of emotion.”


The host looked at his wife in disbelief, not sure he heard right. “Touched? Meaning?” he asked incredulously. “What exactly was she touched by? By the kids asking for techina? By the spilled drink? We didn’t say even a single word on the parsha yet or sing any zemiros. We didn’t even get to any of the kids’ parsha sheets! What was she touched by?”


Indeed, this is to what extent we take our wonderful, spiritually rich lives, steeped in beauty and meaning, for granted.


We forget how special it is simply to sit around, as a family, and celebrate a Shabbos or a chag. Not everybody is so lucky. We forget how special it is to have babies to change, to bathe, to keep clean, to cook for and to worry about. We forget how special it is to have a tradition, to have mitzvos, to have been brought up knowing that there is right and wrong, knowing what Hashem expects from man in his dealings with his fellow man as well as with his Creator.


During our children’s formative years, during their schooling, we do our utmost to teach them the values we share, the meaning behind every mitzvah, and to appreciate having mitzvos which are good for us even if we don’tunderstand why or how they are good for us. Even as we grow older, at every opportunity, be it a Shabbos, a Yom Tov, a shiur we can attend or a sefer we can look into, we know that opportunities for growth and inspiration are endless, rich, and as meaningful as our souls could ever desire. Of course, one who can immerse in the sweet waters of Torah full time, for any length of time, is truly blessed.


Still, at the end of the day, we are humans with very mundane, human needs. We need food, sleep, clean clothes, a stable environment, and so much more. When we tend to these needs, we often cannot – and sometimes should not – concentrate on much more than the immediate task at hand. When our boss asks us to send out an invoice, he needs that task to get done. He would hardly appreciate if we’d first take fifteen minutes out to theologize on the similarity of “invoice” and “bas kol” and try to tap into the bas kol announcing our bashert.


When we have a job to do, the meaning and inspiration to be found is all too often not anything out of sight or to be found at some sublime level. Searching for meaning there is only asking for disappointment, and perhaps even a wrinkled or burnt shirt. The meaning is usually to be found right there in what we are doing, if we’d only appreciate what we are doing, why we are doing it and for whom we are doing it.


Are there deeper levels? Surely. Still, we must never take for granted the depth, meaning, value and purity of the most “mundane” aspects of our lives, and surely not of the special ones.



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