The Quandary of Space

By Rabbi Sam Yolen, Congregation Beth Israel Lebanon

Abraham Joshua Heshel, writing his book The Sabbath, presented an idea summed up as such: “It is not things that give meaning to time, but time that gives meaning to things.”

How much more is that true during a pandemic? When space is at a premium, and every square inch of living space needs to be maximized, how are we now preparing our homes for the insular and cold winter months?

Every spring and fall, around the time of Passover and just before the High Holidays, my father would march all four of his adolescent sons into the garage and point at objects that needed to be cleaned, moved, or disposed of. In the secular world this process is called Spring or Fall Cleaning. Religiously, this is called “bedikat chametz,” or renewing the Jewish new year of Rosh Hashanah. For me and my young siblings, the net result was the same: a lot of groaning and eye rolling at domestic chores.

In the Spring, all the winter clothes would go into bins. The snowboards and sleds disappeared. Clothes that no longer fit went down the family line to the next sibling, or to the neighbors family, or Goodwill. In the fall, the summer games would be shuttered, garden hoses coiled up, an appropriate suit for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur selected from stores like Sears (a store that is sadly now out of business). New school preparations were made. All of these seasonal transitions mark the return from one tilt of the Earth’s pole to the other – from Summer to Winter and back to Summer again. To renew one’s life with vitality, one must renew the space one occupies.

So why now, when we are grappling with social distancing measures, should space be taken so seriously? Because this time, it’s not our first rodeo!

Back in March, when COVID initially burst on the scenes, I bought exercise equipment and a new musical instrument. My grandma was moving from her own home to an assisted living space, and I became the inheritor of her voluminous book collection and three tubs worth of Mother Goose puppets. I thought, in my naiveté, that this quarantine would be the time for me to learn that new instrument, to read all of those books, and to finally develop my Mr. Rogers puppeteering career. Sadly, only one book was read, only one puppet was commercially premiered (at the Harrisburg JCC’s virtual variety show!) and that instrument has been overlooked for my old ukulele every time.

And so now, as we are in the year 5781, and we’ve made it through the High Holidays, I’m reclaiming my space. I plan on trimming the fat away from the accumulated piles of tchotchkes every level surface seems to hold. I plan on sticking to the activities that have held me steady during this uncertain time, and most importantly, I plan on finding deserving homes for the stuff that I am now ready to give up.

When the pandemic first reared its head, I had a hard time finding coping strategies. The shul’s Kabbalat Shabbat band disbanded. Yoga classes became digital only. Family gatherings ground to a halt. But in that space came other activities – I started a backyard garden. I began to bicycle and run outside. I dusted off my old ukulele. I connected to Jewish individuals online fighting antisemitism. I took in a needy dog who takes up way more space than I imagined (and I don’t mind at all).

This Winter I will focus on the projects that actually made me feel at ease. The meditations, the digital yoga, the uke, the dog. Now that I know what works, and what doesn’t, it will be easy for me to make my space accommodate my things, and to continue sharing them (digitally and safely) with my friends, family, and community members. Whether it’s Shabbat, chagim, or the mundane hol (regular weekdays), I want to walk into my one-bedroom apartment and feel ready to do the things that lift my spirits. Maybe at the next digital event, I can lift yours.

Good luck repurposing your sacred space for this upcoming year! May you hold on to all the things that, as Marie Kondo says, “spark joy.”