When halakhic man approaches reality, he comes with his Torah, given to him from Sinai, in hand... And when many halakhic concepts do not correspond with the phenomena of the real world, halakhic man is not at all distressed.
-Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halachic Man
[Note: Some details and identities have been changed, for narrative flow and to protect the innocent.]
My husband and I have fairly clearly defined roles within the running of our household. In some ways it might look as though the division of labor runs along traditional male/female lines: I do the cooking and most of the housework, I am the one primarily in charge of the children, and my husband spends most of his time out of the house either learning, davening, or earning a living. In fact, though, the apportioning of responsibilities is made on a somewhat different basis. Me, I deal with the physical world; my husband deals with everything else.
Do you want to know how one of the rishonim paskened on some issue in taarovos? Ask my husband--he passed the bechina. Do you want to know where the fleishig forks are, and whether the bottom of that bowl you just put on my treif counter was at yad soledes bo? Ask me. You want to know all about a hetter iska and who paskened how about levying interest? Ask my husband. Want to know how much our mortgage payment actually is, and how much we paid in interest last year? That would be me.
When the yamim noraim are on the way, my husband is the one up at all hours going to selichos. He's the one getting in the extra learning, working on the teshuva, asking mechila and making sure to have his house in order (spiritually, that is). He's the one who put the poster about how to have a more meaningful Rosh Hashana with your kids on the fridge. He's the one who thinks, yom ha'din is coming, and I'm not ready.
Me, I think something a little different. I think, guests are coming, and I'm not ready. I am the one who fills foil pan after foil pan for my husband to haul down to the basement freezer. I'm the one making the soup and the cakes, and the kugels and the knaidlach. I'm the one laying in supplies of non-perforated tissues (Target brand are the best) and wipes (Target brand again), making sure we have enough paper plates and little paper cups for kiddush, enough grape juice and tablecloth covers. I make sure everybody has clothes that fit, that the paper towels are torn, that there are new books for the kids to keep them busy over the three-day yom tov. I invite the guests, and figure out who is davening when so we know when we're liable to start eating. And I'm the one trying to keep the kids more or less sane, when everything about their normal schedule is completely blown apart by a three-day yom tov.
I did hear shofar. I got that far. Barak and I went to hear shofar, and I was the only mother there who had forgotten to bring pekelach to keep him quiet with; every other child there had a little plastic bag of candy and treats with at least one lollipop, distributed with stern instructions not to open until shofar-blowing. He watched lollipops being passed out, and accepted my whispered, "I'm so sorry, I forgot to bring you, but if you can be quiet when they're blowing shofar you can have a treat when we get home." He listened completely silently, and with interest; when we got home, he had a peanut butter granola bar from Trader Joe's.
That was the entire spiritual aspect of my Rosh Hashana. I am ashamed to admit that not once did it even occur to me to crack open a machzor. When my husband and his father, who was with us for the holiday, were at shul and Iyyar went down for his morning nap, I did not even think of davening; instead, I made salads, or cleaned the kitchen, or lay down on the couch to rest while Barak played. On the first night, I did all the dishes and had the entire kitchen clean before I went to bed, even though it was late and I was collapsing. It is the only sane way through a three-day yom tov--you cannot let any mess accumulate. First day lunch, after our guests left, I cleaned up the living room (we don't have a dining room, and when we have more than six people for a meal set up a long folding table in the living room--which is almost at the absolute opposite end of the apartment from our kitchen, down a very long hall). I moved into the kitchen and started scraping and stacking dishes. MHH, who had a sefer open in his hand, came into the kitchen.
"Are you sure you should be doing that? Isn't that hachana? You shouldn't be preparing for the second day before the first is over."
"I'm not preparing for the second day. I'm doing the dishes so that we don't get ants in the kitchen, and so that all the food doesn't dry on, and it isn't all gross in here."
"It's not all gross in here. The kitchen's clean. It's just the dishes."
"I can't leave dirty dishes in my sink."
"Do we need them before dinner?"
"Leave them. I'll do them tonight."
Now, when my husband makes an offer like that, he is invariably totally sincere. He has every intention of doing the dishes. He may even intend to do all the dishes, possibly even emptying the dishrack before beginning. He means well, there is no doubt about that. But his batting average so far as actually getting everything done to where I would consider it done is, well, let's just say he's not getting out of the minors. Or in them, probably.
"Just let me do the dishes."
"Go rest. You need to go rest. I'll do them!"
"Will you really do them? I'm sorry to doubt you, but I really don't want to wake up to dirty dishes."
He looks miffed. "I'm telling you I have every intention of doing them. I'm not going to lie to you on Rosh Hashana. Bli neder I'll do them. Now go lie down."
I don't think I actually went to lie down--I think I took the kids to the park. But I did not do the dishes. There weren't that many; we'd had a family with lots of kids for lunch and I'd decided to keep my good china in the cupboard and use paperware. It was just serving dishes and utensils, water glasses for the adults, the kiddush cup and so on.
I put the kids to bed. I lit for the second night. I warmed up the food, set the table, waited for my husband and his dad to get home from shul. Kiddush, motzi, meal, bentching. Time for me to go to bed--or start cleaning up.
"Are you still planning on doing the dishes?"
"Oh, right. The dishes." My husband looks around, and his father, who is praiseworthy in both his willingness to do dishes and his willingness to refrain from touching anything in my kitchen when I've asked him not to, looks up. Aha! his father is clearly thinking. I will help do the dishes, because my son will know what is milchig and what is fleishig and what goes where!
I look at the dishes. I look at my husband. "Can I just be sure before I go to bed that it's all going to be done when I get up?"
My husband begins to look visibly uncomfortable. We have a long track record of very different approaches to dishwashing and kitchen-cleaning. I think of it as a perfective verb: I have washed the dishes, and the dishes are clean. My husband, he does some dishes, or spends time washing dishes, or does a bit of dishwashing. He wants me to be happy. He has no idea what he is supposed to be doing.
"Can you just specify for me exactly what I should be doing here?"
I try very hard not to heave a long-suffering sigh. I mostly fail. "Put away all the food, in covered containers. Wash all the dishes. There shouldn't be anything left on the table at all. Wipe down the table and the counters. There are paper towels torn up in that bag over there. There shouldn't be anything on the counters related to this meal or lunch."
My father-in-law seems to take this with equanimity. My husband's brows start to pleat. He looks intently at the sink. He looks at the dishrack, which has a few dry dishes in it from lunch. "Am I going to have to empty the dishrack?"
"Yes, you're going to have to empty the dishrack."
"Can I do that? Isn't that borer (sorting)?"
"No, that's not borer."
"How is that not borer?"
"Because you can do it on yom tov. Every family I have ever known has put away dishes on yom tov. It is okay."
His gaze travels to the sink. "What should I wash the dishes with?"
"The shabbos scrubber, right there. It's that plastic bristled brush, marked 'meat.'"
"Isn't that s'chita (wringing)? Are you sure that's okay for yom tov?"
"How do you know it's fine."
"It's a plastic bristle brush. It doesn't absorb water. There's nothing to wring."
We went on like this for a while, establishing that yes, it was entirely muttar to clear the table, put the food away, wipe the counters and so on. After a while, my father-in-law interjected, to my husband.
"You know where all the dishes go, right?"
My husband starts looking even more uncomfortable. He has no idea where anything in the dishrack goes. I can tell just by looking at him.
"Those are Shabbos china," I tell him. "It all goes in the hutch in the living room, the white hutch in the corner of the hall."
Eyebrows go up. "We need to carry those dishes all the way to the living room?"
My eyebrows go up. I have, after all, been serving entire meals from the Siberia of my kitchen to the Moscow of my living room. "It's not that far. I'm pretty sure it's within t'chum (the distance permissible to walk on Shabbos or yom tov.)"
"Okay, okay," he says hastily. "I just wanted to be sure."
At this point, I am pretty confident that things will be okay. My father-in-law will not let my husband go to bed without finishing up, and reason and cleanliness will probably prevail. "Don't forget that the back burner is on," I remind him. "Don't go putting any of the dishwashing tubs on the back of the stove."
"We won't," they assure me, and I go to bed.
At about 3 am, Barak woke up crying, and woke up Iyyar. I got them back to sleep, and then peeked into the kitchen, just to see. It looked pretty good. The water pitcher was still on the table, the counters needed work, the sink wasn't wiped, but all the dishes were definitely done and all the food was definitely put away. I felt a little bit guilty for my lack of faith. I went back to bed.
A few hours later, I was woken by my husband, hissing in my ear, "I'm really really sorry, but I think everything's okay." This is never the ideal way to be woken, especially not on yom tov.
"Are the kids okay?"
"Yeah, the kids are fine. It's the kitchen."
"I saw the kitchen. It's fine. What's wrong?"
"Well, we cleaned the kitchen. But I forgot about the burner. And I put the high chair tray on the back of the stove..."
Do you know what I think? I think it just didn't register--because bishul (cooking) is muttar (permissible) on yom tov.