Next to Godliness


I cleaned my kitchen floor the other day. This may not seem noteworthy to you. But to me, sad to say, it is.

It’s not like we’ve been wallowing in filth. We don’t have kids or pets, and we take shoes off at the door, so we don’t track in a lot of dirt from outside. When we notice a major spill, we’re pretty quick to sweep it up. Sometimes I even take out the broom just for good measure, in case there’s something I’m not seeing.

Even so, the floor was starting to bother even me. But even if it hadn’t, I could tell by looking at the calendar that a cleaning was in the cards. Just not quite yet.

Passover is a little over two weeks away. I don’t prepare for the holiday by scouring my oven or covering my counters with foil, and we don’t have a special set of Passover kitchenware. But I do clear out all the foods we’ll be abstaining from during the holiday. And I give the kitchen its annual deep cleaning. The point of this cleaning isn’t pragmatic. It’s religious. I would clean before Passover whether the kitchen needed it or not. Not that the question has ever come up.

But now, two weeks too early for the ritual cleaning, the floor was starting to bug me. And then, while I was making breakfast, the juicer went crazy and sprayed orange pulp all over. And then, just in case I still hadn’t gotten the message, right when I was about to start my day’s work at my computer, the power went out.

The story I’m now working on is tentatively entitled “Beshert,” which is Yiddish for “destiny” or “intended.” I could have used my laptop until the battery ran down. And then I could have gone to a coffee shop or the library. Or written longhand, of all things. Instead, I decided the power outage was a sign that cleaning my floor now, ahead of my pre-Passover cleaning, was beshert.

I squirted the soap into a sink full of warm water, took the sponge-mop from its hook in the back hall, and began.

While I do my Passover cleaning, I have the holiday on my mind. I review the seder menu, and figure out my cooking schedule. I consider who will be at the table, and parcel out parts. Who will play the evil son? Who will ask the four questions? In a good year, I might get beyond logistics and pay attention to the spiritual intent of what I’m doing. I’m not just cleaning the floor, I’ll remind myself. I’m remembering bondage. I’m celebrating freedom. I’m welcoming spring.

Now I wasn’t cleaning for Passover. I was simply cleaning. But it wasn’t that simple.

I was feeling the slide of the sponge on the linoleum. I was watching the wet progress across the floor. I was hearing the quiet. The no-hum of the refrigerator. The no-rumble of the furnace. The no-option of turning on music. And I was letting my thoughts flow where they would.

I thought about my dear friend Chris, who died three years ago. Hanging above her kitchen sink was a Buddhist teaching about washing dishes. I’m pretty sure it was Thich Nat Hanh, “While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.”

I thought about my good friend Roma, a California artist whose work explores intersections between the sacred and the mundane. Her contemplative images of hands loading a dishwasher and cleaning a toilet hang opposite my desk.

I thought about the saying, “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” and wondered if it is.

I don’t believe in God, per se, but I do believe in godliness. That distinction, pointed out to me by my friend Rabbi Kaunfer, comes from theologian Arthur Green. The idea, as I understand it, is to approach religious practice (in this case Jewish practice) not as worship of an imagined divine being, but as striving to emulate the positive attributes traditionally associated with “God.” Those qualities include things like compassion, patience, kindness and forgiveness. Cleanliness? Not so much.

On the other hand, cleaning—or weeding or kneading, painting walls, splitting wood, or engaging in any number of mundane, necessary tasks—and doing it with the right mindset, can become a meditation. A way to resent one’s inner compass.

And even if the chore doesn’t produce any spiritual breakthroughs, when you’re done, you’ve got a clean floor.


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5 Responses to “Next to Godliness”

  1. Linda P. Epstein Says:

    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, Ruth, but you mis-typed “reset one’s inner compass” as “resent one’s inner compass.”

  2. Marlene Greene Says:

    lovely – I really enjoyed your take on “Godliness”.

  3. Hinda Says:

    Reblogged this on Hinda Tzivia Eisen and commented:
    Yishar Koach to Ruth Horowitz on a really wonderful reflection, getting us into the mindset of Nisan. (Chodesh Tov!)

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