Whenever we would visit my grandparents, everything in their Bronx apartment was in perfect order. Nothing was out-of-place, and there was no clutter lying around. The minute they were done with any paper, my grandfather would take it down the hall to the incinerator, and it was gone. Nothing was ever dusty, and all the glass was sparkling. My grandmother liked things to be clean. When she would visit our home, the first thing my grandmother did was to take for the vacuum and give our carpets the once over. At first my mom got offended, but in the end, she let grandma do her thing.
I have never been what people would call a “neat freak.” I like things in place, and like my house to be clean, but I don’t have an obsession with cleaning. I do have a problem with clutter. If I had an incinerator, things might be easier, but I don’t have one. I started taking clutter more seriously when I visited some friends who had worse clutter than I had, and it made me feel really uncomfortable. I wanted to make sure my house was warm and inviting, and dealing with clutter was part of it. The place didn’t need to be spotless, but it needed to be a place where people could feel welcome and comfortable. I don’t think people should be judging one another on housekeeping, but we should strive for warmth and friendliness.
Uncleanness is a big issue. When I lived in New York City, our congregation met in a Salvation Army facility. They did a lot with the homeless, and when they had an event there, the pungent smell of body odor and filth filled the air for days after the event ended. The smell put people off from visiting our congregation. I say this not to denigrate the poor, but to make the point that physical uncleanness creates a barrier between people.
Cleanliness is not only physical, it can be moral as well. Many years ago, I had a man in my congregation who was addicted to pornography. He not only looked at pictures, he started visiting places of immorality, and eventually moved a prostitute into his apartment. He saw nothing wrong with it, and was surprised when the congregation, after repeated attempts to urge him to repent of his behavior, disfellowshipped him. Eventually, he changed his behavior and was received back into fellowship, but the point is, his moral uncleanness affected his moral compass. When we permit moral uncleanness to become part of our lives, we can not expect that our morality will not be affected. I Thessalonians 4:3 states, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality.” It pollutes the soul.
Ultimately, as people of God, we are to be clean, because God is clean. If your home or body is not clean, it reflects on you. When I was working on my Masters degree, I worked in a men’s clothing store. The book, “Dress For Success” was required reading. It’s a behavioral study of people’s responses to the way people dress. it was very helpful reading. The reality is, people, for right or wrong, do judge by appearance. If you dress like a shlump, people assume you are a shlump. If you dress well, are well-groomed, and have good personal hygiene, people assume you are clean. You can still be a sleaze-ball while dressed in a tuxedo, but your actions will transcend your clothing. We want people to take us seriously, and appearance is part of it. Once we have the appearance we also need the lifestyle to back it up. Paul said in I Cor. 6:18, “Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body.”
Cleanliness may be next to Godliness, but it isn’t the same thing. Following God should lead us away from all forms of uncleanness, and toward holiness, but in itself, cleanliness isn’t holiness. There are some people who stress the outer cleanness, and neglect the spiritual cleanness, but it’s not one or the other, it’s both. While outer cleanness is important, ultimately the inner is more important. We shouldn’t make the mistake of confusing good grooming with a clean heart. The outer is good for first impressions, but in the long term, the spiritual cleanness is the one that matters most. Its nice to come into a clean home, but if you can’t live in it, what good is it? Its good to be well dressed and showered, but if your heart isn’t right, what good is it? Its more important that a home be warm and welcoming. The same is true for people. Its more important that a person be kind and decent. No one is perfect, and no home is perfect, but ultimately, we need to strive for both.
also posted in Riverton Mussar: A Wellspring For Ethical Change