The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: Thoughts on Repentance

If you live in a small home or apartment, or if you struggle with getting rid of anything and everything, you know that keeping your spaces clean and junk-free is no easy task. There is a reason why millions of Americans pay for pricey walk-in closets, throw out more junk than they can remember accumulating, and even hire professionals to help get rid of all the things which they should never have bought in the first place.



Meet Marie

In the world of decluttering, the guru is Marie Kondo. Powered by her bestselling book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she has become an international sensation. Specifically, this Japanese cleaning consultant has sold millions of books, lectured around the world, and became the face of an industry that some hadn’t known existed.


What is it about Kondo’s method of decluttering that has drawn such acclaim and resonated with so many people? In Japanese, it’s called “tokimeku”, which loosely translates into “things which spark joy.” To explain, the natural approach to cleaning one’s home is that it is a time to throw out unwanted junk. Not to Kondo. She takes the opposite approach:

“I had been so focused on what to discard, on attacking the unwanted obstacles around me, that I had forgotten to cherish the things that I loved, the things I wanted to keep,” Kondo explains. “Take each item in your hand and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’ If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it… Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.”


Decluttering for Repentance 

Repentance conjures up the image of junk, all the bad habits we hang onto and all the mistakes we have to fix. This perception is reinforced in Judaism in several manners. For instance, the Jewish people throw away their sins during the Tashlich ceremony and annul their vows on Yom Kippur eve. The machzor (holiday prayer book) is replete with imagery of clothing stains and their removal, as a metaphor for repentance.


But what if Kondo has a point? What if, instead of spending so much of the time of repentance focusing on all the unwanted obstacles we want to get rid of next year, we spend more time fixated on the actions, relationships and decisions which have brought us joy?



Lesson from Yom Kippur: The Two Goats

In the times of the Temple, the most dramatic sacrificial act of Yom Kippur – the pinnacle day of repentance – was that of the Se’ir La’azazel. In this ceremony, a goat was selected by lottery, taken out to the desert, and thrown to its death. The symbolic gesture of sacrifice was meant to suggest that the goat carried away the sins of the people. With the goat being thrown away, the people’s sins went with it.


Not as well known is that Yom Kippur actually had a second goat, one the Talmud tells us must be identical to the other. While the Kohein (priest) took the previously described goat out to the wilderness, another goat was brought into the Temple and celebrated as a sacrifice to God.


It’s easy to fixate on the goat of sins, the one which is thrown off a cliff, but we often overlook the second sacrificial goat, which perhaps symbolized everything worth holding onto. The story of these two goats seems to illustrate the same insight that has made Kondo so successful: the joy of celebrating our gifts should outweigh the burden of tossing junk.



Hard to Do But Essential

For those of us who struggle with illness, loneliness or disappointment, moving beyond our worst selves is hard to do. We become fixated on the aspects of our identity we like the least. Those of us who struggle with mental illness may overlook the fact that they have desirable physical health. While many get frustrated with their lack of confidence, do they remember all those to whom they gave encouragement? Anchored by setbacks, it is easy to forget to celebrate all that we have to be proud of.



Teshuvah: A Time of Reflection

The season of repentance is a time for reflection. We must not fall into the trap of harmful fixation. Rather than focusing on the junk that needs to be removed, we should be grasping at the traits, skills, and milestones that have brought us joy. Let’s embrace the opportunity that the High Holidays offer. If we look carefully, we might just find that the best pieces of ourselves shine brighter than we remember.




What are your impressions? Does this approach to repentance resonate with you? Please share your thoughts, questions, and comments.

Rabbi Dovid Zirkind

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