Earth Etude for Elul 27: Teshuvah in the Garden

by Maxine Lyons

~ My perennial love relationship with the earth is expressed most explicitly in tending my flower gardens. For me it is spiritual work, a way to respect the earth while feeling more mindful of how growth and change is an ongoing  process and mirrors the major themes of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The spiritual work of Teshuvah on the Yamim Norayim for me often centers on facing challenges, reviewing the aspects of my life that need changing and seeking new ways that I can re-commit myself to positive actions to bring about those changes. The natural world starts me on this path.  For example, the row of pine trees that form a wide spreading canopy over  my front garden presents a challenge as the shedding of needles change the acidic quality of the dirt; the large and hard roots threaten some new plants and choke others out. In response, I move plants around and encourage new growth and change in more fertile and inviting places. Another gardening challenge is spacing—learning  to place flowers in further proximity to each other and taking better accounting for the spread of  day lilies and others that stunt the growth of the colorful and more dainty astilbes.

Likewise, human growth depends on our own spacing— how do we create the openness to pursue our activities and relationships that lead to positive  choices for the growth that we seek? Are some relationships choking our growth,  or can some of our old habits retard our ability to change? Are there other influences  to surround ourselves with- the  people who reflect sunshine and who most enrich us?

I see how each plant flourishes differently or perishes on the stem. Through regular watering, dead heading of flowers and moving around those  plants that need shade and others more sun, growth happens. Likewise, people need regular on-going practices to ensure growth and change. I have found that in this years’ approach to Elul- doing regular mindful living practices help me recognize ways  to change my negative reactivity patterns. I am also assessing my responses in times of adversity and challenge so that I can better contribute to the growth potential within me. Teshuvah is my effort to become my higher self, feeling a greater calm enriched by a weekly meditation sangha meeting and home practice that reflect those qualities that I want to cultivate. In Buddhist terms, planting and watering the seeds of compassion show me how to  deal with my own prejudices, flaws, and weaknesses. In specific Jewish terms, learning where I have missed the mark and how to aim more effectively in the right direction.


Teshuvah is a life-long pursuit, just as gardening requires attention and modifications during the planting season, so as I am working for substantial internal change I can also see the earth’s capacity to cultivate growth. This metaphor works for me. Even though Rosh Hashanah demands a deeper focus on this awareness toward new change, I believe that adopting practices that nourish my feelings and behavior ensure that I keep on a spiritual track. With hope and resolve, I believe I can acquire more positive turning a little more each year.

Maxine Lyons is an active participant in an interfaith social justice organization, and assists several Jewish inmates who teach her a lot about the challenges of incarceration. She also does spiritual accompaniment with homeless individuals. In all of these pursuits, she is  humbled by and deeply saddened at the disparity between living a privileged life and knowing that many others cannot grow and change to their true potential without meaningful and constant support and positive opportunities for Teshuvah.

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