Minimalism, Hygge, and Chassidic Judaism?

If you’ve been under a rock for a few years, then you might just be unaware that people are increasingly getting rid of their stuff, opting to live in tiny houses, or even RV’s or completely nomadic.  It’s kind of a recent trend in the never-ending quest to simplify our lives.  There is even a Netflix documentary on this as a movement, called Minimalism, and you can find a slew of blogs devoted to it as well.  Our modern lives have more and more demands for our attention and with the stagnation of wages, more and more people are opting for a simpler life of less, from “capsule wardrobes” that pare down our closest, using the “KonMari Method” to declutter our homes, to the bare minimum to attempting to live lives of zero waste to ease the pressure on the environment, less has become the new more.

For those for whom Minimalism feels a little, well, TOO minimal, hygge is the new trend.  It’s a Danish word that essentially means a cozy or pleasant experience and those who have embraced this idea point out that every day we are given opportunities to find moments such as these, whether it’s a soft, warm sweater on a cold day, a simple walk in the park with friends, or slowing down enough to enjoy a cup of tea.  This philosophy is somewhat related in that it focuses on simple pleasures and trying to increase those in one’s life.

So, what does this have to do with Judaism and Chassidus in particular?

The way I see it, at least from my studies, the main purpose of Chassidus is to find the holiness within a simple life.  Early Chassidic stories talk of people living very simple, often poor lives yet filled with holiness and Chassidus itself often deals with finding the sparks of holiness within the mundane around us and elevating them, freeing them from the husks that obscure them so that they can return to the divine source, Hashem.  In fact, Chassidus teaches that this is the very purpose of our existence, to elevate these hidden sparks through mitzvos.

The Torah points to a life lived with intention, where attention is paid to even the rocks we step upon and the foods that we eat, where every detail of one’s life is ordered to a purpose of creating holiness in the everyday world.  Unlike many religions that encourage their adherents to separate from the mundane, to cloister themselves off to a mountaintop or sanctuary to avoid any distractions from the spiritual, Judaism stresses that it is precisely within the mundane that we must search for the spiritual, that we must bring the spiritual into the everyday and by that process elevate it.

To me, looking at these attempts to simplify, live with intention, and to elevate mundane moments into something better…it looks like people are trying to fulfill that basic drive, but are just missing the heart of it all…that the intention and purpose that you simplify your life for should be Hashem and His ways, not necessarily just a “cozy feeling” or “simple pleasures.”

Which leads me to wondering, what does a life pared down to allow a much greater focus on Torah and mitzvos look like?  What is the precise lifestyle that provides the least clutter or distractions from elevating those sparks of kedusha, yet still remains firmly rooted in this world so that I’m most able to find those sparks?

And so, I come back to my own life and where it is now and where it is headed.

Today, I walked to the store from work to find lunch food and I looked up at the mountains that border Anchorage to the east.  For once, the rain had stopped and there were only a few low-lying clouds, so I could see them clearly.  I saw the tundra above the treeline and I noticed that it was changing colors as it does in the Fall here.  There were beautiful reds and yellows and oranges in the sedges, the small stunted plants that live in those harsh places.  I could imagine the scent of wild sage up there, as it often is this time of year.  I smiled and then I felt an ache in my heart as I realized that this is the last autumn that I will see the tundra changing colors for the Fall.  Next Fall, I will be in a city and when I look up, I will see buildings and sky, not mountains.

Here, the sparks are big and easy to see.  They exist in those breathtaking views and the difficulty of keeping mitzvas so far from a larger Jewish community and in a place where sunrise and sunset are so variable.  I don’t have to search far to find inspiration and I also don’t have to go looking for challenges.  It’s all easily brought to me, every day.  But, I must move if I’m to continue growing in my Judaism.  Beyond just conversion, there are limits here to how much I can learn and grow and observe.  I must leave my beloved wilderness with it’s beauty and majesty and instead choose a life that is much more confined.

I must choose a life that is much more grounded in the mundane.

With this life, we’ll also be trading our home for one much smaller and our time will be much less free and instead filled with all the commitments that come with being a productive member of a community.  We will need to choose carefully what we take with us, both physically as well as spiritually and we will need to work harder to find inspiration and not become too casual when kosher food is widely available and shul just down the block.

I think there are greater opportunities to build that kind of life, the kind that has an intentional focus on Torah and mitzvos, but there are also plenty of challenges and ways to build a life that is full of distractions from our real purpose for moving.  There will be so many more choices to make there than there are here.

And sometimes, I look around myself and envy those I will be leaving behind, who have a kind of forced simplicity to their lives just by living someplace this wild and remote.  If it wasn’t for Judaism, I don’t think I would ever leave here, but because of Judaism, I absolutely cannot stay.

In the meantime, I plan on climbing to another mountaintop, to enjoy the view, smell the sage, and contemplate what to take with me.  I have one more winter to gather sparks here and not a moment to lose, but then, my sparks are elsewhere.



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