The cleaning lady is coming.
To be more precise, the cleaning crew is coming to clean our home from top to bottom.
Yet, here I am feverishly cleaning my entire house before their arrival.
Having someone clean your house is a luxury, one that we are able to afford every few weeks. It helps make our home look beautiful and keeps us sane, especially during this pandemic. I can’t say how much time it takes for our blessed abode to become cluttered once more, but that moment of coming home to a shiny, clean space is something I wish I could bottle.
Nevertheless, I am now cleaning for the cleaning crew, and frankly, that is something that feels a bit silly. I don’t cut (what’s left of) my hair before going to the barber. I don’t change the oil in my car before taking it in for a tune-up. It wouldn’t make sense to cut the grass the day before the landscaper comes, would it?
And yet, the scene repeats itself over and over every few weeks. Like clockwork, on the eve of each visit, we stay up late to make sure that clothes are put away, the kitchen is relatively spotless, and the toys my children play with are all where they belong despite the fact that they’ll be played with again before the cleaning crew arrives. In fact, my best, most successful attempts at cleaning my home stem not from stress or feeling boxed in (even during this pandemic), or when I’m particularly happy or sad. These successful campaigns at straightening up aren’t even the result of cleaning for Passover.
It’s when I’m cleaning for the cleaning crew.
Something here seems askew. Why am I doing all of this in anticipation of their arrival? Is this not the exact reason why we pay for this service? I know we’re not the only ones who do this. We can’t be the only ones, right?
It seems like the behavior of a crazy person. But I learned early on what happens when the cleaning crew comes to work their magic when the apartment is completely cluttered: It doesn’t actually get clean.
Hear me out. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cleaner and more straightened up that it was before. The floors may be shinier and the counter tops will glisten. The beds may be made and the surfaces dusted. Yet, the clutter, the “stuff” that existed beforehand can only be managed, not effectively cleaned up as if it were never there. The items that aren’t in their proper place when the cleaning crew arrive don’t always magically get back to where they belong, some of which hasn’t been “home” in quite some time. The cleaning crew is only able to clean based on what they see in front of them. They can’t be as effective or efficient in their job if the house is not in some sort of order for them when they arrive. Their role is not to purge everything we own and Marie Kondo-style purge our entire living space, unearthing papers and other things that we’ve long forgotten about. The reality is that when I clean for the cleaning crew, which I am loath to do, I’m not only helping them. I’m helping myself.
The more I think about this phenomenon and how it unfolds time and again makes me realize how applicable this scenario is in relation to the High Holidays, which inch ever closer.
In the days leading up to the holiest days of the year, we try and clean our own “houses.” After an intense round of “pre-cleaning,” the Almighty cleaning crew, so to speak, will step in and tidy up what’s left. Every young child in Jewish day school or religious school knows that when Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur come around, it’s time to say we’re sorry for all the wrong we’ve done. Some make a great effort to do so, during the month of Elul or throughout the year when the issues themselves arise. Others simply don’t, much like the entire rest of the year. Some don’t know that they’ve committed any infractions, while for others, it’s hard to swallow their pride and say sorry. Nevertheless, if we are lax in our effort to repent before the Yamim Noraim, we are somewhat in luck. The Mishnah and later, Rambam, explain that if we take no repentant steps, we will be forgiven of our transgressions between us and the Almighty. A clean slate to start the year.
Much like the cleaning quagmire, what’s the point? If we are to be forgiven anyway with the coming and going of the High Holidays without even exerting much in the process, why even engage in this, at times, raw and uncomfortable procedure? The house will be cleaner even without returning the clutter back to its place.
In truth, there is a reason to engage. Both the Mishnah and Maimonides cited above are explicit in their affirmation that even though God removes our iniquities done in relation to our interaction with Him, this is not the case between our actions toward our fellow humans. Sins that are Bein Adam L’Chavero, between us and those around us, are not wiped away with the setting of the sun on Yom Kippur. While we may attain a level of teshuvah by getting a new start between us and God, there can be so much more that we’re leaving by the wayside. Teshuvah then doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to because it puts us in a false state of forgiveness. It’s a tremendous job to work on oneself during the month of Elul in advance of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, or at any time of the year, and one who does so with great self-reflection is truly worthy of the reward they’ll receive. But if this is not coupled with the same sort of introspection in reference to working on ourselves in the sphere of our interpersonal relationships, in the areas in which we have violated the standards we are to live by, this exercise remains essentially futile. If we do not seek to appease those we have wronged with serious, meaningful teshuvah, this is all for naught. What are we even doing? God’s role in the process is vital but He can only help us in attaining complete teshuvah if we help ourselves.
The month of Elul is quickly coming to a close. The cleaning crew is coming and the time is slipping further and further away.