I’m not the type of person who likes housework; I don’t think I’ll ever be. The sense of accomplishment that friends attribute to cleaning countertops and vacuuming eludes me. But, when I clean my house on Fridays, I am certain of one thing: I am engaged in avodat Hashem.
My Shabbat preparations are part of my fulfillment of the mitzvah of zachor: Doing positive actions to make Shabbat a holy day.
Similarly, when I go to work, I know that I am engaged in avodat Hashem: It’s a positive mitzvah to care for one’s basic physical survival, which is a prerequisite to the “higher” forms of avodat Hashem, like prayer, Torah study, and acts of kindness.
When I read a book, I am developing my intellect, which I see as falling under the general rubric of fulfilling one’s potential, which I believe God wants each and every one of us to do. We are each blessed with a unique soul, and it is our job on this earth to cultivate that soul. For each person, that cultivation will look different, just as each soul is different.
When I enjoy looking at a tree, I am increasing the amount of joy in this world. Rabbi Riskin says that one of the question God asks of people when they get to heaven is, “Did you take pleasure from my world?” because God created the world for us to take pleasure from, and when we fail to do so, we squander a gift that God gave us.
Often, we divide the world into the mundane and the holy, the boring and the meaningful. And the truth is, that even though I consider work and house chores avodat Hashem, that doesn’t prevent me from finding them boring, sometimes. But I think we need more rhetoric that reminds us that the things that we have to do, that we sometimes find difficult to do, are not separate from our existence as religious beings, but rather, are part and parcel of it.
I admit, this type of rhetoric has two major flaws:
- It can easily be used to justify keeping women at home i.e. “Why do you want to go to shul? You’re fulfilling a mitzvah by staying home and watching the baby”.
- It can be used to justify a life of mediocrity. I don’t have to go to the shiur, because by staying home and vegging in front of the TV, I’m allowing my soul to rest, which will give me more energy for work tomorrow, or because resting is a basic psychological need that falls under the positive commandment of “And you shall take care of your soul, very much” just as physical needs do.* Now, there’s no doubt that both of these statements are true. But when overused, they can lead to a life of always vegging out in front of the TV, and never going to the shiur.
But I still think we need a Judaism that is more forgiving: That instead of simply asking us to set aside time for spirituality, also acknowledges the spiritual worth inherent in our daily tasks and routines.