Rabbi’s Corner

Rabbi’s Corner: Decluttering guru provokes thoughts about gratitude

Rabbi Batsheva Appel

Marie Kondo has made her name by helping people tidy up. She has a system for removing clutter from our homes that includes the correct ways to sort things, to fold things, to store things. Kondo’s approach is very different from most de-cluttering experts. She suggests that we hold every single item and ask just one question, “Does it spark joy?” If it does spark joy, then we save that item and she tells us how and where to place it in our soon to be de-cluttered home. If the item does not cause us to feel joy when we hold it in our hands, then it needs to be discarded. If any item is hard to discard, then Kondo suggests that we think about its purpose in our lives and let it go with gratitude, going as far as saying “Thank you” to the item.

I was reminded of Kondo as I was reading about gratitude, hakarat hatov, for my Mussar studies. It is said that when Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the Kotzker Rebbe, was ready to consign old shoes to the trash, he would first wrap them in newspaper to show his gratitude. Hakarat hatov is about recognizing the good that is already in our lives, including things such as the shoes on our feet. It is easy to focus on what we do not have, which is how we end up with so much in our homes to tidy up. Dr. Alan Morinis notes in his book, “Everyday Holiness,” “There is no limit to what we don’t have, and if that is where we focus, then our lives are inevitably filled with endless dissatisfaction.” As we read in Pirkei Avot, “Who is rich? The one who is happy with what they have.”

Mussar, an ancient Jewish spiritual practice, uses study and ongoing spiritual practices to develop the midah, or trait, of gratitude. One might wake every morning and say the phrase “Awaken to the good and give thanks.” Another Mussar practice to cultivate gratitude could be to write a list of five things that we are grateful for. Or we could follow the example of Rabbi Menachem Mendel and express our gratitude for the things in our lives that we need to discard.

Between Pesach and Shavuot, it is my custom to go through my clothes and determine what goes and what stays. I do it before Shavuot because this is a good time to transition clothes for the change of season and because before the Israelites received the Torah at Mount Sinai, they were told to prepare themselves and wash their clothes. This year there are a number of items that will be finding new homes and that I am grateful for having worn. Some of the clothing will be donated to Your Sister’s Closet, a project of the YWCA of Southern Arizona that provides work-appropriate clothing, shoes and accessories to women who might not have anything they could wear to a job interview or to their first few days of work. I am grateful for having had these clothes to wear. And I am grateful to be able to donate this clothing to women who need it.

Rabbi Batsheva Appel is the rabbi educator at Temple Emanu-El.