Earth Etude for 9 Elul
Return to the Land of Your Soul
by Adina Allen
In Genesis we read that God places Adam in the garden “to serve it and to guard it.” In the rabbinic imagination there are many possibilities for what this description could mean. It could mean that the first human was given the practical task of keeping the garden watered so that plants would grow, or perhaps of protecting the vegetation of the garden by keeping the animals out of it. However I think there may be another, more thrilling motive to explore in imagining why this task is the task first given to human beings.
Anyone who has had the privilege to tend a garden through all the seasons knows the magic that can be found in this enterprise. Being connected to a piece of land over a period of time gives us constant opportunities for noticing, not just the big, beautiful changes like bursts of colors when the perennials pop up for the first time, but the subtle day to day or even hour to hour changes of seedlings growing, working their way up through the soil, unfurling tender green leaves and pulsing down grounding white roots. Tending a garden can helps us to learn the value of patience, of waiting and watching and letting things happen in their own natural time.
Over the cycle of the year the garden teaches us to understand that change and growth are constantly happening. Even in the bitter cold of winter, under mounds if ice and snow, garlic that is planted in the fall takes root and flourishes under ground, hidden from our watching eyes. In the spring, we see the bright stalks of green shooting out from the soil, but the seeds were alive and growing before any of that came to the surface. Tending a garden gives us the opportunity to be in contact with the inspiring strength and humbling fragility of life, and can help us to understand our place in the nature.
In reading this phrase “to serve it and to guard it,” we can ask what, exactly, are human beings meant to be serving and guarding? While the obvious answer, of course, is the garden, I think that there is another possibility. Through the physical act of gardening, we are not only tending the land, but we are tending ourselves. There is an intrinsic relationship between cultivating the soil and cultivating the self. As we work on transforming the earth on behalf of plants, we are, ourselves transformed. Perhaps what we are meant to be serving and guarding is not only the garden, but also the nefesh, the soul.
This High Holy Day season may we have the courage and strength to till and to tend our own souls. May we clear away the weeds that no longer serve us, may we have patience as the seeds within us germinate, and may this work cause the garden within us to flourish.
Adina Allen is a fourth year rabbinical student in Hebrew College's transdenominational program in Boston and a Wexner Graduate Fellow. The is the rabbinic intern at Adamah: The Jewish Environmental Fellowship, Adina's passion lies at the intersection between Judaism, ecology, and creativity. Prior to rabbinical school Adina was the Assistant Editor of Tikkun magazine. She has been a contributing scholar to the interfaith blog State of Formation for the past three years. In her free time Adina loves to ferment foods, bake bread, run around with her dog Barley, and stand on her head. More of her work can be read at www.adinaallen.com.