How to Tackle Too Much Stuff – A Jewish Approach to Decluttering
Rabbi Barbara Aiello
“Can I help you with that?” The question came from the UPS driver who had just delivered a package to Jeanette’s next door neighbor. Jeanette offered a grateful smile and let the young man lift the box she was carrying and place it in the open trunk of her car.
The box would later make its way to the local Good Will store, joining about a dozen others that Jeanette had taken there this week alone.
“Decluttering,” Jeanette said to the young driver. “Over the years we’ve accumulated so much stuff. It’s overwhelming.”
Jeanette’s dilemma and her dogged solution are not unique. In recent years books, articles, YouTube videos and television programs have touted the benefits of leading a simpler, “stuff-free” life – a laudable goal but as Jeanette has discovered, not as easy as it sounds.
As the Jewish New Year approaches, the time is right for a fresh start sans the trappings of rampant consumerism, retail therapy and a gnawing sense of “I just can’t let this (dish, picture, love letter, award, mug, etc.) go. But how to tackle what seems to be an insurmountable task?
Marshall reinforcements. Take to heart Ken Bresler’s assessment of the cluttering problem (“A Jewish Take on Decluttering”) when he writes in the Boston Jewish News that “For Jews, decluttering is not a fad. It’s a tradition starting with God, the first organizer.”
Bresler even points to the Jewish prayer for getting rid of stuff; “Blessed is the One who brings order to the world, as You bless my efforts to bring order.”
Journalist Bresler found the prayer (offered in English and Hebrew) in “The Book of Jewish Sacred Practices: CLAL’s Guide to Everyday & Holiday Rituals & Blessings.” This 2001 publication, by the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, has a two-page spread titled, “Organizing Your Room, Your House, Your Office, Your Affairs, Your Life.”
So now that the prayer is said, let’s get at it. That’s where author Rita Wilkins comes in. Writing in the online magazine, “Sixty and Me,” Wilkins outlines a method for moving mountains of papers, clothing, knickknacks, mementos, etc. The Wilkins article, “The Therapeutic Benefits of Decluttering Your Home and Your Life,” (July 30, 2023) offers an organizational basis for approaching what seems to be an insurmountable job.
Breaking clutter down into manageable categories is an essential but often overlooked first step, says Wilkins, who cautions that the random accumulation of a variety of tangible and intangible possessions can literally make us sick. To that end the author offers an overall framework from which to begin.
“Digital Clutter” manifests itself in unopened emails, disorganized desktops or hundreds of undeleted photographs, while “Sentimental Clutter” includes little chatchkes, our children’s art projects, old love letters – stuff that we’ve relegated to cardboard boxes in the basement or plastic bins in storage facilities that we pay for each month but haven’t visited for years.
Have you considered “Calendar Clutter?” Rita Wilkins has. She writes, “When our calendars are filled with too many commitments and obligations (the “have to’s” but “I don’t want to’s”) and when we allow unsolicited expectations of others to consume our time, attention, and energy our calendars leave no room, no white space for our own priorities and desires.”
Then there’s “Financial Clutter,” in the piles of unfiled receipts often mixed with unpaid bills, not to mention hidden clutter in the form of “Relationship Clutter,” that Wilkins describes as patterns of toxic behavior such as constant yelling, blaming, and enabling that, “just like physical clutter can hold us back from living the life we want and deserve.”
In an upside down version of the six days of creation, these six clutter categories represent a personal Rosh HaShanah – a place to start as we work toward effectuating a seventh day of peace.
In Kohelet we read, “There is a time for everything …a time to keep and a time to cast away… a time for every purpose under heaven.”
According to the experts, decluttering your home and your life has great benefits including a feeling of great relief. To begin, focus on one of these six categories. As the burden of too much stuff is lifted we are able to create space for a simpler, more abundant life.
NOTE: This article first appeared in the Sarasota/Manatee Jewish News, September 2023.