The Torah of Cleaning the Refrigerator

I was planning to study some Torah on Saturday morning, a worthy endeavor. I had a new copy of the Women’s Torah Commentary and was genuinely excited to explore it. I settled down on the couch with a thermos of tea expecting to be quickly pulled into the pleasure of words and ideas. Instead, the refrigerator began calling me. Quietly at first, then insistently, like a pulse I couldn’t ignore. I could not remember the last time I had thoroughly cleaned the refrigerator. A quick cycle through irritation, guilt, resistance and finally resignation, I got up off the couch and ambled into the kitchen. I looked inside the nasty box. It was worse than I remembered. I’d never mastered the storage possibilities of the refrigerator so now a corked bottle of chardonnay lay on its side alongside a half gallon of iced tea that had at most 4 ounces left. Both dripped their contents onto the shelves below. 

The little compartments in the doors held multiple containers of aging condiments: could that horseradish really be from Passover, eight months ago? It’s pickled, I reason, so probably not life threatening, even if the cap is cracked. There are multiple kinds of mustard, probably from the pool party in August. A jar of unjelled preserves, from my friend Bob, who suggested it could be used as marinade for salmon, is at least a year old. Vegetables from the CSA rot in corners of the crisper. A film of oil coats the bottom of the drawer meant to hold cheeses and lunchmeats, seeping from a container of Trader Joe’s smoked trout, my go-to lunch protein. And feta cheese. Lots of half filled containers of feta cheese, my grandson’s favorite. He last visited over a month ago.

The more I look, really look, at the stains and detritus of neglect, the more grossed out I become. And paralyzed because if I clean the refrigerator it will immediately begin its slow slide into filth again, unless I stop putting food it. Like so much of women’s labor in the home, cleaning the refrigerator is ephemeral, unseen and unappreciated. Yet to ignore it erodes the soul. Writing in The Guardian, Rose Hackman says: “The concept of emotional work and emotional labor – as repeated, taxing and under-acknowledged acts of gendered performance – has been a field of serious inquiry in the social sciences for decades.” So much of women’s work is not merely physical but involves layers of emotional meaning and surfaces for self-reflection. It isn’t just a cold box to store food; it is a mirror to some degree of my soul, as is everything in the world. If we look, we find ourselves.

So the refrigerator became my Torah.

So the refrigerator became my Torah. I opened myself to it in all its disarray. I tossed the cheese and recycled the jars, wiped the shelves and composted the vegetables. I looked carefully at the shelves and readjusted them to accommodate our stuff. I engaged with each item, not in disgust but in appreciation. I asked forgiveness for wastefulness and gave thanks for plenty. I worked slowly, carefully, taking time to wash off each surface completely. I offered these acts to the Divine Source as prayer. She was my witness and I felt Her accepting and dignifying my labor. When I was done I felt holy, whole and blessed. Whole-heartedness, I see now, is what renders something Torah. All things are ephemeral. Yet those that are embraced, sanctified and blessed, nourish the soul and build the spirit, regardless of what they seem to be at first glance.