It occurs to me that the Book of Leviticus is all about the laundry. After the ecstasy detailed in Exodus, the liberation from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai, we confront the details of how to lead a Jewish life. “These are the set times of the Lord, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time…” (Leviticus 23:4) What follows is a list of our major holidays. It is an exhausting list of chores.
People often think that religion is about ecstasy. It is about returning to Sinai. It is instead about the laundry. It is about order. The Jewish prayerbook is called of course a siddur. This name comes from the same Hebrew root as seder and means order. Our prayers are not about ecstatic moments but instead about following a prescribed order.
People pine after what today we might call a spiritual awakening. They run after euphoria. Everything must be inspiring. All must produce an ecstatic high. Perhaps this is one explanation as to why people commit adultery or experiment with drugs. They want to rediscover that ecstatic moment they imagine once was. They go to extraordinary, and sometimes even destructive, ends to recapture a mythic past.
Life is instead about the laundry, not the ecstasy. Religion in general and Judaism in particular orders ecstasy. It seeks to frame the ecstatic. Why? We cannot exist for too long in these ecstatic moments. One need only look to the prophets for evidence of these inherent dangers. We read their words for inspiration, chanting the Haftarah every Shabbat morning, but look away from their lives as models for our own. They were intimate with God but distant from people, often painfully standing apart from their very own families. The everyday stuff of life will not get done if we spend our days as if we were also ecstatic prophets. The meals will never get cooked.
Too much ecstasy is a dangerous thing. After the people experience God at Mount Sinai they cry to Moses, “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. ‘You speak to us,’ they said to Moses, ‘and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.’” (Exodus 20:15-16) Too often people think that Sinai is our religious ideal. The ecstatic is the religious goal. Instead it is the Shabbat table.
There we find order. We discover joy.
Leviticus gives us the holidays. It offers us brief days of ordered illumination, rejoicing and celebration, punctuating the year. Leviticus introduces us to the laws of kashrut. These are at their best moments of religious awareness discovered at each and every meal. We discover these not on some lofty mountaintop but instead in our homes, at our tables, in our kitchens.
Religiosity is found doing the laundry. Piety can be discovered in everyday chores.
Recently I was kibitzing with our students as they enjoyed their pizza before the start of class. I am not sure how the discussion started, but I found myself talking to them about taking responsibility for their own actions and doing things for themselves. That is of course the underlying meaning of the bar/bat mitzvah celebration. So I told them that they should learn to do their own laundry. They stared at me as if I was from outer space, then laughed and looked knowingly to each other affirming that it was I who really did not understand the ways of the world.
Still I stubbornly believe. I continue to teach that life is not only about what is fun and enjoyable. It is not all Sinai. It may be as simple as if you cannot fold your own clothes how can you order a life of meaning? The exhausting details of the Book of Leviticus are actually where life is lived. Exodus inspires. It can provide meaning. But it is the chores of Leviticus where we live.
That one moment of ecstasy must often last a lifetime. The remainder is doing the laundry.