Finding God in the Garden: Backyard Reflections on Life, Love and Compost

Finding God in the Garden: Backyard Reflections on Life, Love and Compost

by Balfour Brickner

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Grieving after the death of a beloved daughter, Rabbi Balfour Brickner struggled with his faith while preparing a flowerbed. One day the rabbi found himself writing down the thoughts that came to him as he turned the soil, and observing nature's abundant examples of order and renewal, miracles and beauty, Rabbi Brickner found his faith returning like a garden in

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Grieving after the death of a beloved daughter, Rabbi Balfour Brickner struggled with his faith while preparing a flowerbed. One day the rabbi found himself writing down the thoughts that came to him as he turned the soil, and observing nature's abundant examples of order and renewal, miracles and beauty, Rabbi Brickner found his faith returning like a garden in spring.

Using the garden as a sanctuary and springboard, Rabbi Brickner considers the lessons to be learned from the tasks of caring for the land, the wonder of a garden in full bloom, and the connections between Biblical teachings and botanical life. "Finding God In The Garden" is a passionate, witty, and provocative celebration of mature religious faith derived through nature, reason, and the joys of everyday work.
— Explores rational spirituality, reconciling faith with enlightened thought.

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Finding God in the Garden

By Rabbi Balfour Brickner

Back Bay Books

Copyright © 2002 Rabbi Balfour Brickner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-316-73866-2

Chapter One

Eden: The First Garden

Eden is that old-fashioned House
We dwell in every day
Without suspecting our abode
Until we drive away.

How fair on looking back, the Day
We sauntered from the Door - Unconscious
our returning,
But discover it no more.
-Emily Dickinson

How can one write a book on gardening and God without starting in the most obvious place? Eden is the first garden described in any Western religious literature, and if one accepts what is written about it in the Bible, it must have been an incredible place. But what did it look like?

Where was it? No one knows or could ever have known. The Eden described in the Bible probably never existed. I think of it as being like that mythical village of Brigadoon - a lovely imaginary place, repository of all our yearnings. But was there ever such a place as Eden? Could there ever have been? We may find a hint of an answer to such questions from the word itself.

Linguistic scholars tell us that while the Hebrew word eden means "delight," the word actually derives from the language of a Middle Eastern civilization, the Sumerians, who predated the Hebrews in that part of the world by some fifteen hundred years. We find in their vocabulary the word edinu, meaning "steppe" or "plain." So Eden, a diminutive or corruption of edinu, might have been a plain or steppe nestled somewhere between the two great life-giving rivers of the Middle East, the Tigris and Euphrates, the possible sources of our garden's water.

By the time the Hebrews appeared on the scene, the phrase "Garden of Eden" came to signify some mythical afterdeath place for the righteous, and it lost all geographic meaning. It ceased to be a place and became instead an idea, even an ideal.

As a professional religionist, I know how theologians through the ages have used the story of the Garden of Eden either to create or to justify their own religious views. Later in this chapter, I will deal with one of the more powerful (and damaging) of these ideas, but for now it is as a gardener that I approach this tale. From that perspective, I am uplifted spiritually by the story every time I read it. A garden - and surely that first, most perfect garden - fires the imagination. Imagine its beauty. Imagine its serenity. Within our deepest parts, there seems to be a drive to seek and surround ourselves with beauty, whether through art, music, or great literature. And that is precisely what brings us to appreciate a beautifully designed, exquisitely executed garden.

Rare indeed is the person who does not resonate to a garden. I have seen hundreds of people who did not know a petunia from a privy walk through both public and private gardens enthralled by what they saw. They may have had no knowledge of bloom time or sun requirements; they may have been totally ignorant of, and oblivious to, what it takes to make a plant bloom. But none of this is required for the sheer enjoyment of that combination of shape, color, size, and spatial relationships that helps our senses respond to a garden. I have watched the most cynical people melt into silent wonder as they viewed a mature quince or crab apple tree in full spring bloom. A couple of years ago, I planted a young one, Malus 'Indian Summer', along our drive, and it has become a spring traffic hazard. Drivers can't seem to take their eyes off it as they approach our house.

What is there about a garden that generates so much pleasurable response from so many? Perhaps we see the garden as a symbol - a place, yes, but more than a place, a space that represents some fulfillment of homogeneity lacking in our too frequently unsatisfying societies. Perhaps it beckons to us with a simple goodness, a lovely innocence to which we would like to return. A line from the song "Woodstock" captures this longing: "We've got to get ourselves back to the garden." Gardening can represent the simple values - integrity, wholeness, purity - but the compelling power for me lies in its challenge to be creative and in the personal satisfaction that the arduous work of a garden brings. Turning bare space into a place of beauty is a form of birthing. It brings into being the potential hidden in the source. Perhaps God experienced such a feeling when looking down on the results of creation. Nurturing a garden into maturity challenges only the self. It threatens no one. The only things one has to "beat" when gardening are weeds. Gardening can be exhausting, but one rarely grows tired of it. No wonder I find it so hard to stay out of the garden - except, of course, in the dead of winter.

I've done my share of digging in virgin ground, jolting shoulder, elbow, and back as shovel clanged on some humongous, defiant, glacially buried rock resisting, as each one does, every effort to be pried loose from its antediluvian resting spot, and I can assure you that all of us seriously addicted to gardening ask that "what was Eden like?" question. Anyone who knows the pain and the reward of turning lifeless compacted dirt into fertile soil - enriching it with bales of peat moss, bags of rotted cow manure, and compost from an of to turned pile - must wonder how that first garden got put together. Since Genesis gives us only hints of what paradise must have originally looked like, we have to use our imaginations to complete the picture.

In the beginning, it was "unformed and void" (Gen. 1:2), and if the earliest texts are to be believed, the place must have looked like a bog or swamp, much too wet to plant. God took care of that problem not with the addition of ferns or dozens of moisture-loving plants such as aconitum, astilbes, or turtlehead, but with one sweeping command. So simple. One can almost hear the entire firmament echoing with the sound of the Great One's order: "Let the water below the sky ... be gathered into one area / That the dry land may appear" (Gen. 1:9).

One would expect that divine bellow to establish a proper and perfect place, and in fact, everything seems to have grown just right in Eden: "And from the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of knowledge of good and bad" (Gen. 2:9).

God's luck, not mine. Not only do weeds stubbornly reappear each season in places I thought I had rendered permanently weed-free, they also grow with such deceptive camouflage that sometimes even I, weed expert that I think I have become, cannot distinguish between plant stem and weed stalk. I hate to think about how many innocent obedient plant stems or monarda shoots I have mistakenly yanked up. The Master Gardener seems to have had none of these nagging little problems or, for that matter, problems of any kind. In Eden, a perfect biosphere was obtained, with God in full control: no aphids on the roses; no black spot; no weevils in the cotton; no borers in the Japanese black pines; the astilbes and the hostas planted in just the right parts of the shade; the garden in continuous bloom from April through October. Many mortals have come close to creating such a garden compleat. The landscape designers and those knowledgeable in plant material and the habit of plants at famous gardens such as Sissinghurst, Winterthur, Longwood Gardens, and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, to name but a few, have created breathtakingly beautiful spaces, but none, I suspect, could compete with the Divinity's handiwork in Eden. Yet, strange as it may seem, God found that he did need help.


The Genesis story reveals a challenging truth: God could not maintain Eden alone.

No shrub of the field was yet on the earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth; and there was no man to till the ground. Gen. 2:5

The Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to till it and tend it. Gen. 2:15

Let us not underestimate the importance of these deceptively simple verses. The Bible is telling us that God needed human help so that the entire life/growth process might move forward. The early rabbinic commentators jumped on this thought: "The edible fruits of the earth require not only God's gift of rain but also man's cultivation. Man must be a coworker with God in making this earth a garden" (J. H. Hertz, ed., Pentateuch and Haftorahs). In other words, paradise was perfect - almost. It was complete - almost. For all its beauty, for all its wonderful design, something was missing. Us! God needed a partner: us.

One of Judaism's more audacious theological principles is that God and humanity need each other to complete the creative process. It is an empowering thought. Instead of seeing ourselves as yet another life form to be redeemed by some other, outside force, we see ourselves as essential, of intrinsic worth, possessed of such capacity that we are needed to complete the Eternal's plans for the universe. We may not be equal partners with God, but we are definitely part of the equation.

It is not much of an intellectual step to move from saying that humans are of value to saying that they are unique - qualitatively different from all other living things. The biblical writers portrayed humans this way. In a highly imaginative passage, they described our special relationship to God when they wrote that we, more than any other living creature, possess the breath of God in our being. It was their way of saying that they believed we have souls. "The Lord God formed man of the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul" (Gen. 2:7).

Do cats and dogs and leopards and lizards also have souls? Many pet lovers and animal rights activists swear that they do. Perhaps so, but I doubt that anyone would argue that the soul of a tadpole and the human spirit are qualitatively the same. We have even enshrined this value judgment that the one surpasses the other in our structure of law. It elevates the value of human life above the value of any other living thing. We give this value a name: sacred. Kill a bear or catch a striped bass, and you may be fined. If the species is endangered or under some other kind of special protection, you may, at worst, be briefly imprisoned. But take the life of another human being (except in a sanctioned situation such as war or self-defense), and you risk the possibility of having the state take yours. We have made a cardinal principle of the concept that human beings are special, possessed of some essence that positions them on the highest rung of the evolutionary ladder and thus subject to special protection. That is why the Sixth Commandment is so explicit when it says "Thou shalt not murder" rather than "Thou shalt not kill." The biblical writers recognized the difference. We can kill in certain circumstances, but we cannot indiscriminately murder each other without paying a terrible price in the courts of justice.

So we see ourselves as unique. Fine, but uniqueness carries with it additional responsibilities.


We do not know how long the good life in Eden lasted for Adam and Eve, but we do learn that at one point, something seems to have gone terribly wrong. What brought Eden down? The answer is found in the following text: "And the Lord God commanded man, saying, 'Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat, but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat'" (Gen. 2:17).

Why didn't God want Adam and Eve, the two best gardeners he ever had, to eat of the tree of knowledge? It is difficult to believe that God did not want human beings to be knowledgeable, informed, since the essence of humanity is our capacity to make informed choices. There had to be a different reason for restricting Adam and Eve from the tree of knowledge - a more compelling, more challenging reason.

God may have been testing Adam and Eve, testing their capacity for self-discipline. Even though they did not possess full knowledge, God had vested this first couple with free will. God had given them the capacity to choose between obedience and disobedience. And for whatever reason, they failed. They chose not to resist the temptation to eat the fruit. The biblical writers were trying to tell us something: From the very beginning, humans have had free will. It is a powerful tool. Use it wisely. People pay a price for poor choices.

Eve wanted to taste that apple, and so did Adam. The price they paid for that bite was steep, very steep indeed: expulsion from the garden. Thus was the course of human history forever changed. Of course, the snake took the rap for what happened, but truth be told, he was only a bit player in this scene. It was God, not the snake, who commanded the couple not to eat of the tree, and it was disobedience of that command that caused God to expel them from Eden. But that did not stop first- and second-century biblical commentators from tying the eviction to some illicit sexual awareness or from portraying the snake in negative and sexual terms. They got some help from the Bible, which tells us that "the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that the Lord God had made" (Gen. 3:1). He talked. And he was defiant of God. One can almost hear him sidling up to Eve and, in the most seductively beguiling terms, hissing in her ear, "You are not going to die" (Gen. 3:4). It's little wonder that first-century Christian writers linked the snake to the Devil himself.

The Apocalypse of Moses, a Christian source written in Greek and dating from the first century, contains the following quote attributed to Eve: "The devil answered me through the mouth of the serpent." Another first-century Greek source, Maccabees, puts the matter erotically: "[A woman recalls] ... nor did the Destroyer, the deceitful serpent, defile the purity of my virginity" (4 Macc. 18:7-8).

Here is the serpent as phallus. The phallus seen in negative, even hateful, terms. In fact, some religious traditions used the Eden story to link sex and sin. But there is no such connection in the biblical account. Other than a reference to nakedness-in and of itself not a sexually negative allusion-there is no sexual reference in the Garden of Eden story. Yet this harmful equation of sex and sinfulness persists to this very day, instilling in many people feelings of guilt about what are normal and healthy sexual feelings, and preventing social institutions such as schools and churches from talking openly and teaching honestly about human sexuality. Millions still cling to the belief that sex is in some ways "dirty" or, worse, sinful, requiring us to seek "purification" or "redemption" via some "holy," usually external, source. But it was not sex that caused Adam and Eve to be driven from the Garden of Eden. It was disobedience.


Excerpted from Finding God in the Garden by Rabbi Balfour Brickner Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Balfour Brickner. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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