Last summer, I visited a church in Denver that had acquired one of the city’s oldest and best-known synagogues. The building had been abandoned for years and had to be completely restored, a massive project that included hauling away truckloads of pigeon droppings. It was a tremendous labor for this inner-city congregation, but it was also an act of worship, as they restored the original beauty and holiness of the sanctuary. Simply cleaning up the old building didn’t make it a house of worship, and yet it could not serve as a house of worship without this cleansing. (See http://www.churchinthecity.org; the ministry now includes a Messianic congregation meeting on Shabbat.)
The middah of cleanliness applies to personal hygiene and grooming, and also to cleanliness on a larger scale. It applies to visible cleanliness, and also to inner cleanliness. Indeed, the two are intrinsically connected, as Yeshua reminded some of his religious opponents. “How terrible for you, hypocritical soferim and Perushim! For you make the cup and the bowl tahor on the outside, while their insides are full of robbery and gluttony. Blind Parush! First make the inside of the cup tahor, so that the outside may also be made tahor!” (Matt. 23:25-26, DHE).
Outward cleanliness should reflect inner cleanliness, rather than disguise inner corruption. And sometimes the way to inner cleanliness is through outward cleanliness.
The morning after Zevi Hirsh got married, he went off to clean the shul, as he always had. The rabbi’s son complained to his father that Zevi should be honoring his wedding and abstaining from such lowly work for the week of celebration. The rabbi replied: “You have made me happy, my son. I was much troubled as to how I should be able to pray today if Zevi Hirsh the Servant did not clean the House of Study himself. For when he does the cleaning he drives out all the demons, and the air grows pure, and then that house is a good place to pray in.” (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim)
In our world, cleaning jobs tend to be the lowest rungs on the employment ladder—the janitor, the dish washer, the domestic. We want things to be clean, but we want someone else to do the work, and to do it with minimal recognition and compensation. But we forget that without these simple labors, the rest of our lives would soon fall into chaos. Yeshua washed his disciples’ feet at his last Passover to teach a profound lesson in servanthood. But he also washed their feet because they were dirty. We may treat the task of cleanliness as mundane, as something that just has to be done, preferably by someone else, but we forget that it is essential to practicing, rather than just theorizing about, holiness.
Gospel references taken from Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels (DHE)®, © Copyright Vine of David 2010. Used by permission.