A Bright Look at a Brand New Year

 I USED TO THINK there were 10 days between the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement because it takes that long to clean up your act. Now I have a new theory: When you bump into people on Rosh Hashanah and invite them over for Yom Kippur, it takes more than a week to clean up your house.

If they happen to be coming to my house, restoring order takes more than 10 days. It requires megabuckets of Mr. Clean, fountains of Fantastik, and wonders more miraculous than the parting of the Red Sea.

One year, I was particularly self-conscious about my housekeeping because a stranger was coming for dinner on Erev Yom Kippur.

He was not, in fact, a total stranger. I wish I were noble enough to welcome the homeless and other disenfranchised people to my house for holiday meals. Instead, I usually feel overwhelmed enough feeding family and friends. In this case, we had invited two of our daughter's closest classmates and their parents for the feast before the fast. Since one of the girls' grandmothers had recently passed away, I extended the invite to include her widowed grandfather, too. The verdict reached me only the day before the dinner: He had chosen to accept.

Setting another place at the table was certainly no problem. Being a nice Jewish mom, there was also no question that I had adequate food to feed an extra guest -- or a horde of hungry barbarians, should one just happen to drop in.

The thing that set sirens off in my head was that the grandpa had never seen my house. There's nothing like a pair of fresh eyes to highlight clutter. The mountains of junk mail. The magazines we're too busy to read. The school flyers hung by the constellation of magnets that camouflage our fridge.

 After doing my sorry best to purge this detritus, I started in cleaning the silver. My late mother-in-law's ritual candlesticks came first. How tarnished they had grown in only a year, so yellowed with age and dingy-looking that I hesitated to use them at all. Some vigorous rubbing with silver polish changed my mind. Talk about major miracles! After finishing the first one, I set the pair side by side and stepped back in disbelief.

The clean one gleamed brilliantly, like a full moon, a many-tiered masterpiece adorned with shimmering Lions of Judah, bright Stars of David, and other ornate filigree. Its untouched twin stood like a gnarled, old tree at twilight, a phantom of festivities past.

I reached for the polish, then had a flash of inspiration and promptly put it away.


When my mother arrived for dinner and offered to help set the table, she noticed the mismatched candlesticks and looked at me askance. "Is your cleaning woman crazy," she asked, "or did she simply run out of time?" 

 "The cleaning woman was me," I retorted. "I may be crazy, but I have a plan."

"A plan to use different candlesticks?" she asked hopefully.

That night, with friends and family seated expectantly around my dining room table, I stood to say the barucha over the candles, then paused before striking the match.

"These beautiful candlesticks belonged to Grandma Harriet," I said. "Can you believe how different they look? One was polished this morning, the other left untouched. Now let me tell you why."

The contrast between them had made me think about the human soul, I explained. "Look how tarnished our inner characters can become over the course of a single year. We always start off with the best of intentions. Then, gradually, we go astray."

Personally, I admitted, I had done more than my share of gossiping, griping and bickering. I had criticized my husband, snapped impatiently at the kids, and failed to call a seriously ill friend often enough because hearing her pain made me too sad.

Yet however marred our integrity becomes, it is never too tainted to come clean. "Maybe Rosh Hashanah, the new year, is like Gorham Silver Polish for the soul," I said.  "We pray, we reflect, we ask forgiveness from each other. And however cruelly or awfully we've behaved, we still get another chance to let our better selves shine through."  

Everyone there seemed to accept my idea. Even the grandpa, no longer a stranger, suggested I make the mismatched candlesticks an annual ritual. "Next year, you should shine the other one," he said. "If you can still tell the difference between them."

And so I have. Every year, I realize that the clutter has crept back once again, and the one candlestick that I polished is so tarnished again that I can hardly tell which is which. Sadly, my soul has also lost some of its luster. My house may not be quite ready to receive guests, but I'm all ready for Rosh Hashanah.

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