Thursday, September 20, 2007

A sink full of holiday dishes to wash....

For the first seven years of our marriage, we spent Rosh Hashanah with my husband's Uncle David and Tante Ursula. It was one of the highlights of our year.

Then we moved home to Massachusetts. While our hearts filled with joy to be near our parents, we always feel a bittersweet lack on Rosh Hashanah away from Uncle David and Tante Ursula.

Whatever we manage to provide for our guests at our own Rosh Hashanah table, our best results are but an ambitious imitation of theirs. Whatever we happen to get right is due to witnessing the sparkling and passionate conversations, learned and inspiring divrei Torah, spontaneous and harmonious singing, delicious and elegantly presented meals, the atmosphere of generosity and appreciation, and the overall kedushah (sanctity) of their home.

As a young bride I found Tante Ursula's kitchen inspiring. I still do. It was spotless and efficient, yet open and warm. It was overflowing with both love and every tool necessary, yet it was without clutter or waste. It was a serious workplace adorned with fresh flowers and posters from the family's many travels. Visitors felt as comfortable relaxing over tea on the sofa, as stirring the soup while the pomegranates were being peeled.

The kitchen table held a freshly starched tablecloth in a bright, colorful floral pattern that was both elegant and uncontrived. It was perfectly ironed - without a wrinkle - yet not the least bit stiff. Her kitchen table was a place to linger for a chat after breakfast, to work a crossword, to polish silver, or to play a very unorthodox game of Scrabble.

On my first visit we had been married exactly one month. After dinner the first night of that first Rosh Hashanah, as Tante Ursula and I were putting the stock pots away, she paused and looked meaningfully at me. She said that when she was first married, her aunt told her, "One should always clean the bottom of one's pots just as carefully and as well as the inside."

Since we all hail from solid yekkish stock, earnest housecleaning advice certainly could be taken at face value. And Tante Ursula isn't prone to religious sermonizing. Her insights are more likely to be revealed via reflection on her irreverent quips or ironic turns of phrase. She keeps her soap-boxes neatly stacked in her closet.

Likely due to the Rosh Hashanah mood, or perhaps from the intensity of its delivery, or maybe because my eagerness to collect whatever wisdom from them I could absorb, I knew immediately that this advice could only be about everything but the pots.

The first part was easy. The outside of the pot is what's visible in public. If this is messy, others will make assumptions about its contents and about the cook. Yet nobody knows what's really goes on inside someone else's pot.

Clearly, the inside of the pot is our private behavior, either at home with family, or in solitude. The cleanliness of the inside of the pot is vital to the integrity of the meal. If you don't clean the inside of the pot, even the most savory roast will be spoiled. Washing the outside at the expense of cleaning the inside is an indication of misplaced priorities.

But the bottom of the pot? What difference could it possibly make if there is a stain that nobody sees, that never touches the food? Who has time to scour the bottom of their pots?

I have to admit, my first internal reaction to Tante Ursula's advice as we said goodnight, and I retired to the guest room, was dismissive. Whatever she was trying to tell me about homemaking, philosophy, or morality seemed like an exercise in over-achievement, a recipe for nurturing obsessive compulsive disorder. Even for a newlywed yekke with little responsibility and a very small apartment.

Overnight, however, the idea stewed and simmered (sorry, couldn't resist!) In shul, as I listened to the shofar blowing on that first day of the first Rosh Hashanah of my married life, I was preoccupied with Tante Ursula's pots.

The shofar, the trumpet-like instrument made from a ram's horn, is the main symbol of Rosh Hashanah. In fact, when the holiday is mentioned in the Torah, its name is "the time of the shofar blowing", not "Rosh Hashanah".

On Rosh Hashanah, we read the part of the Torah that describes Abraham's binding of his son, Yitzchak, to be sacrificed at G-d's command. First, G-d calls to Abraham. Abraham responds, "Hinneni" ("Here I am") , the rest of the events of the Akieda proceed. Eventually the ram stuck by his horns in the thicket is discovered, and everyone (except the ram) lives either happily thereafter or not, depending on whose interpretation you prefer.

Similarly, the sound of the shofar heralded the events at Mount Sinai. Just before the Torah was revealed to us, as one nation, we said a plural parallel to "hinneni", "Naaseh v'Nishma", ("We will do and we will hear/understand.")

This phrase, "Naaseh v'Nishma" represents Judaism's focus on the value of behavior before belief. Belief, understanding, and faith are experienced as a result of action. Performing a good deed with imperfect motives is preferable to refraining from acting, waiting until the motives are pure. Ultimately, over time and through repetition, proper motives will come to accompany proper behavior.

What a relief that ones merits can accrue directly from actions, which are concrete and observable! How liberating to be free of the need to produce faith on demand, or to expect it of others. We, the nation of Israel, struggle with G-d. We are not judged by the current status of the struggle, but by our willingness to engage in it, and by our behaviour.

I have always taken refuge and found comfort in this approach, because the "naaseh" part is in my hands. I control how I behave. That second part, the "nishma" - the belief, the understanding, the faith - often eludes me. When asked about personal issues of faith, I'd respond, "I'm working on 'naaseh' for now."

And that's why Tante Ursula's pots rattled me.

Does it matter if there is a mismatch between the spiritual level of one's thoughts if one behaves well both in public and in private? Is it enough to concentrate energy on the outside and inside of the pots, neglecting the bottom? Can't the bottom of the pot wait until later? How urgent is the status of the bottom of the pot?

A person could go a lifetime, never giving much thought to the condition of her pot bottoms. The kitchen would likely function well enough, wouldn't it?

However, it is difficult to imagine someone who takes care to clean the bottoms of the pots, not having spotless pots overall. This is analogous to one whose spirituality doesn't translate into good behavior. Such misguided values result in a meal we would not be eager to share.

Judaism's behaviorist philosophy leads me to imagine that even someone who never intended to take care of the cooking parts of her pots, would experience an improvement in this area. Scouring the bottom of a pot makes it impossible to ignore the parts that touch food.

The private, ineffable, "non-functional" aspects of one's spiritual life, like the bottoms of the soup pot, deserve the same diligent scrutiny and thoughtful attention as the outside. Tante Ursula's subtle lesson struck me then, and has stayed with me since.

It is of the most religiously motivating ideas I've experienced.

While distance prevents us from spending Rosh Hashanah with them, we think of them often during the holidays (and throughout the year). And for me, particularly when faced with a sink full of Yom tov dishes to wash.

I wish Uncle David, Tante Ursula, their children and grandchildren, the readers of this blog, and all of Israel a chatima tova. May a year of health, happiness, prosperity and peace be sealed for all of us.

May we all have the time, energy, and inclination to clean even the bottoms of our pots.

UPDATE (September 24, 2007): This article was also published at BeyondBT. Additional discussion may be found in the comments on that page.)

7 comments, so far. Add yours now!

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Anonymous said...

How wonderfully written! I too will be "stewing" over the state of my posts now. I wish you a happy new year!

Anonymous said...

what a beautiful post. to think about all the parts of us, not just the ones that we can see or use...thank you. g'mar chatima tova, and may your fast be fulfilling.

Deborah Lipstadt said...

lovely description -- and quite accurate -- of Ursula's table, kitchen, and welcome. Brava

G6 said...

Thanks for your wonderful, though provoking post as well as the inspiration you provide your readers throughout the year.
Wishing you a year full of health, happiness and wisdom.
May all your tefillos be answered for the good.
Gmar Chasimah Tova

Jendeis said...

What a wonderful post. You are such an inspiring writer! May you have an easy fast.

Kalanit said...

It's good to know that someone else out there struggles with the "nishmah" part but still maintains his/her best on the "naaseh" part. However, I think it is meaningful to note that there is something compelling us to do the naaseh part even when we feel the nishmah part is lacking--this is almost _more_ faithful, _acting_ on something about which you only have faith to reason.

Tempo said...

I have just recieved a beautiful set of new pots as an engagement gift. (Made by a company called "Blinq." They have a colored enamel coating - I'm getting them in both red and blue!) I will definitely keep this post in mind when I start using them...:)

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