Tools for Transformation

Gardening, Teshuva and Elul by Ahava Spillman – Elul 5774

I love gardening. I really do. I love digging, watering, planting, and pruning. I even love weeding. Gardening satisfies many of my basic human needs.  Gardening offers me a healthy hobby, fresh air, sunshine, hands on involvement, and definite earthly interaction.  Gardening indulges my spark of creativity and it feeds my love of nature: you cannot imagine the joy of spotting a bud, watching it swell and finally erupt into a blossom. An iris, a daisy, a hydrangea, it makes no difference; potential being realized is an exquisite thing to behold. Gardening frees me from the stresses and worries that want to inhabit my brain. Gardening helps me relax, unwind, breathe, and enjoy moments of quiet and solitude. Gardening is better than an advanced yoga class!

Gardening teaches me about the interdependence with the physical, about the relationship between heaven and earth, about my Maker. Gardening enlightens me about beauty and love and transition. As the seasons change, so does my perspective. Witnessing the earth’s transformation from one season to the next allows me occasion to accept the inevitability of my own evolution.

Avid gardeners are keenly aware of the facets of nurturing needed to make a garden flourish.  Nurturing requires a detailed plan, daily effort, and a strong sense of responsibility.  Don’t these activities sound familiar: constant discipline, a proposed strategy, and conscientious obligations? Certainly, these three courses of action could have been extracted from a parenting paperback, or a life skills brochure, or a CEO manual.  Don’t our lives require daily effort, a detailed plan and a strong sense of responsibility? When we have goals we want to accomplish, we begin with a vision, a dream… then we employ continuous resolve, collect copious tactics and invoke a powerful air of commitment.

Gardening and life are parallel, and the skills needed for one are easily transferrable to the other.

Chassidus teaches us that everything in the physical also exists in the spiritual. We are nearing the month of Elul, the last stop before Rosh Hashana. Rabbi Chaim of Zans asks, “Who is not fearful of this period of time?” We must be thoughtful concerning what we do as the Holy days approach. We think, “I have plenty of time and plenty of things I want to accomplish.” But the days slip by in mere deliberation, and thought never actualizes into action. Elul is a time for change, new commitment, a time to acquire forgiveness and re-channel energy.                                                                                                                    Sometimes it’s overwhelming: not just one little adjustment in a daily routine, but a mountain of teshuva, a huge overhaul that seems impossible to accomplish. But as the old adage claims, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So too, this mountain can be scaled with a single tread upwards.

Imagine a ladder with a100 steps. Someone is on the 89th step, and another person is on the 11th. Which one will reach the top first? ……….

It depends in which direction each is travelling!

  We are told that during the month of Elul, the King is in the field.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman ‘s king parable is a famous one. During the entire year, when the king is in his palace, there is no possibility for an audience with the king. There comes a time, however, when the king is out in the field. He has no entourage, no body guards, and no appointments are needed. His Majesty is truly accessible. While in the field, all people can go to see him, converse with him, and make requests of him. That’s where G-d resides during the month of ELUL and when we realize the King is in the field, an entirely different relationship develops.

He is accessible to us and we are unafraid to approach Him because He is so willingly and conveniently attainable. Song of Songs says, “I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me.” In Hebrew (אני לדודי ודודי לי) (I am to my Beloved) the first letter of each word spells Elul (אלול). At this time, G‑d’s relationship to us is one of love and tenderness. Every month has a quality that personifies it. The quality of Elul is Besula- Virgin. It is explained that there’s a part of each of us that cannot be corrupted or spoiled. Like a protected garden, safeguarded by a high fence, it remains flawless. Kabbalistically, it is with this unsullied part of the soul that we say “Ani LeDodi” I am connected to you, G-d.  I am worthy of having this communication because I am pure. G-d responds graciously and sincerely: “Vedodi li” (my beloved is to Me).

It is this feeling of closeness that propels us to take that initial step towards teshuva. Elul is a time of reflection, thinking of what we did in the past year and what could be corrected. Elul is a month of immense opportunity.

Teshuva involves remorse, regret and resolve. We think about that within ourselves that needs fixing, perhaps a negative personality trait which offers no positive benefits, or a bad habit we’ve been promising to erase for ages. We acknowledge it, feel contrite, and accepting responsibility, vow to never repeat the behaviour.  To comprehend the difficulty of this process, let’s return to that small plot of earth in the front of my house.

It is always astounding to me how weeds thrive in the garden. Painstakingly, I remove each ugly enemy that somehow reproduces furtively under the cloak of darkness. This is no exaggeration. Overnight ugly, strong, seemingly full grown weeds appear where only innocent flowerbeds existed before.

But wait. If the ground isn’t moistened first, the roots of the weeds will remain; and then, the exercise is completely useless. If we’re not ready to approach the King, no teshuva occurs. So, first you must water: that’s the preparation. When you only remove the visible superficial portion above ground, nothing is achieved. Only following a thorough soaking, is it possible (when the base of the culprit is grasped decisively with a strict, gloved hand), to crucify the weed at its source. Step one: remorse is realized. But beware! These transgressors will take over at the tiniest provocation: a week out of town, a sore back, even a heavy rain: they show no compassion. These irritating invaders are remarkably similar to all those minor infractions I’ve already expelled. I think it’s under control, I’ve done my due diligence, I’m clean and sober…when much to my horror,  despite my  earnestness, these unwanted visitors reappear. They’re not exactly the same, they have mutated themselves. They have become devious. Teshuva’s  regret , step 2, is more sophisticated than its predecessors. Their ancestors may have been plucked out of existence, but this next generation surreptitiously squeezes itself among the clusters: shoots among the perennials, spikes within the shrubbery.  Now recognizing them is more of a challenge, and disposing them more arduous, but the success more meritorious, and the result priceless.

In Teshuva, this is resolve. Not only the obvious shortcomings have been handled, but the hidden indiscretions have been uncovered as well!

Gardening is physical, all the senses are involved. We feel the sun on our back, smell the fragrance in the air, and see the dirt on our arms. Gardening is a humiliating experience.  It should be radical therapy for men and women too full of themselves or overly confident.  Having to kneel, bend, pull, push, shovel, and squat, wrench the hubris out of most of us.

The entire physical world is an analogy to the spiritual. Land requires cultivation, planting, and watering in order to bring forth human sustenance. We know we must weed out the influences in our lives that sap our energy and stunt our own growth.  We know we must let Torah fertilize our minds.  We know we must prune back self indulgence and old habits so that we might reinvent ourselves and experience Elul.

Cultivating the garden is a metaphor for serving G-d. The inner Garden within each of us must be nurtured, and protected from those things which can harm and ruin its spiritual growth. In 1969 Joni Mitchell wrote “We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”

What garden did she mean? Maybe the one in front of my house, the physical exertion teaches us about work and reward and nature and responsibility, or maybe she meant Gan Aden, the perfect spot that Adam and Chava occupied for much too short a time before exiled, or maybe she knew about Mashiach, and believed we would fine peace, harmony and perfection in the days just after our Teshuva.

As much as those lyrics meant in ’69, they mean more now… we are wiser, we are older and we want to deserve to be back in the Garden! I wish you all a meaningful Elul and a Shana Tova: a wonderful year full of small challenges and large simchas!

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