The Owner of the Garden
In this week’s parasha, Ha’azinu, Israel has completed its forty years of post-Egypt wandering and is looking into the Promised Land from the eastern bank of the Jordan River. Moses is about to die and is offering his farewell address, reminding his people of the b’rit, their Covenant with God, that was forged at Mount Sinai, and was repeatedly violated throughout their forty-year journey. “Tzur y’lad-kha te-shee,” Moses tells them. “You have neglected the Rock that begot you … va-tish-kakh Eyl m’khol-l’le-kha … and you have forgotten the God who brought you forth” (Deut 32:18). And yet, God remains a willing partner if Israel will just do its part and observe the terms.
It’s a problem, to be sure. No one among the Children of Israel, save Moses and Joshua, is still alive to remember the parting of the Red Sea, their miraculous rescue from slavery by God’s outstretched hand. Telling them that God has never stopped watching over them is like my telling you, “The setting of the sun, the movement of the oceans, the cry of a newborn baby, are all evidence of God’s presence in the universe.” For me, that’s exactly what these are. For you, maybe not so much.
And yet, here we are. Summer has turned to autumn. The changing of the seasons always seems to present nature’s best side. We take long drives to view the turning of the leaves. We take long walks on autumn afternoons when the sun shines brilliantly but the air is cool and comfortable.
That’s not why Sukkot happens now, but it’s lovely that it does. Sukkot occurs at this time because in Israel the rainy season is about to begin. And if you recall your geography, Israel and the Middle East are desert, or become desert if the rains don’t come. Sukkot was placed just before the coming of the rainy season because the ancient Israelites wanted to make their case before God that they needed God’s blessing of rain. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were actually preparatory holidays before HeKhag, Sukkot’s other name, which means “The Festival.” Sukkot was the High Holy Day of ancient Israel. Without rain, their crops wouldn’t grow, and that would spell disaster.
That was then and this is now. For us, Sukkot comes at a time when we feel wonderful about being alive. We’ve completed our High Holy Days, ostensibly having been inscribed in the Book of Life for another year, the autumn months bringing not just moderate weather but new beginnings as we return to work and to school after summer’s respite.
Judaism challenges us to see God at work in the universe. We may be tempted to take credit for the works of our own hands, but those hands – our tradition teaches us – are gifts from a loving Creator. Our High Holy Days asked whether we live our lives in a world of God’s making, or do we not care where the world came from, only what we can take from it?
Seeing God isn’t hard. But neither is it easy. It takes perspective. And perspective takes practice, and a special eye.
Rabbi Simkha Bunim lived and taught in early-19th century Poland. He told of a king who owned an exceptionally beautiful garden. So magnificent was this garden that the king felt it worthy of having a portrait painted of it. He hired the finest artist in the land, who captured the garden in remarkable detail, every tree, every flower, even the bees pollinating those flowers. Even the king himself was depicted in the portrait, enjoying the transcendent beauty of his own garden. The painting was of such superior quality that one might even mistake it for the real thing.
The king was so pleased that he invited the artist to come to a special reception of honor where all could view the painting on one of the palace walls. With hundreds looking on, surprised and happy cries went up as some birds that had gotten into the palace tried to peck at the apples painted onto a few of the trees. “How marvelous,” proclaimed the king. “Even the birds think your painting is real!” But the artist was disappointed. Asked why, he said, “If the picture had succeeded in truly looking real, the birds would not have pecked at the apples for they would have seen that is God watching over the garden.”
Judaism presents the idea of God as the world’s owner. The plants, the animals, the very ground itself, all belong to God. Judaism teaches that we should respect that. And respecting that should affect the way we relate to the world.
Have you ever screamed, “It’s mine!” Two men were arguing over a piece of land. One said, “This land belongs to me!” while the second shouted, “No. It belongs to me!” Their dispute went through numerous courts and arbitrations. A hatred sprang up between them, drawing others into the fight. Threats began to be heard from both sides. Eventually, they were persuaded to travel to the Rebbe and put their case before him. Each presented at great length not only his claims but contemptuous and insulting remarks aimed at the other side (sounds like Congress). The Rebbe listened quietly, noting how passionately they were arguing. Then, at last, he spoke. “From what you have said, I understand that both of you make the claim, ‘This ground belongs to me.’ That is the reason you have argued so violently, dragging those around you into your dispute. Why don’t you take my advice and listen for a moment to the voice of the ground itself. If you did so, you would hear the voice of God whispering, ‘Both of you belong to Me!’”
God is an idea, one that has helped shape how we view the world. Without God, there is no owner. We can do anything we want. Pollute, deforest, overpopulate, use up all the water, render species extinct, overheat the planet. And then there’s how we treat each other. Bigotry, prejudice, persecution, slavery, hunger, homelessness, murder and war. Nothing is off-limits when there’s no accountability.
For us in the 21st century, the juxtaposition of our High Holy Days with Sukkot is instructive. Theoretically, we’ve identified and apologized for the mistakes we’ve made in the past. Sukkot now presents an opportunity to do real teshuvah, to do more than say we’re sorry, taking the next, crucial step of demonstrating that we have stopped doing what we’ve done before. When we’re inside the sukkah and we look up at the s’khakh, and see holes, spaces up there so that we can see more than the roof; we can see the earth’s owner.
Sukkot stares us in the face and says, “Nu?” Did you mean any of that stuff you promised only a week ago? Have you donated to an organization that’s trying to help? Have you volunteered any time? Have you lent a hand? Do you know who your elected leaders are, and whether or not they’re helping or hindering? Do you vote in “off-year” elections, doing your part to get good people elected at the local level? Or are you only waiting for November 2020?
Can you see the Owner of the garden? Or do you only have eyes for the apples?
Rabbi Bunim teaches, “Most of us are like those birds. Because God is not real to us, we never see the Owner of the garden. We see all the beautiful things that have been placed in our world, but we’re unaware of God who created them. We think these things belong to us. In fact, we are nothing more than unappreciative guests.”
The purpose of Judaism is not to prove God. It can’t do that. Its purpose is to provide a way for us to live as if there is a God. And the trick is to see God in the garden, whether God’s actually there or not, and allow that perspective to affect how we live our lives. When we do that, if we’re true to the intention of our sages’ teachings, if we’re true to the promises we made on Yom Kippur, we might just make this world a little cleaner, a little kinder, a litter better than the way we found it.
As we all know, our garden is in big trouble. Every one of us needs to start working on fixing it, before it’s too late.
When I was a kid, my temple’s religious school put on a play for the whole congregation. It was a production of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I got to play Benjamin. Okay, I wasn’t really Benjamin; I was one of Benjamin’s sheep. Well, I wasn’t really one of his sheep either; I was one of six fleas on the sixth sheep. We had a lot of kids and I guess we all needed parts.
Afterwards, there was a big reception which, true to religious schools everywhere, served lots and lots of dessert so that nobody would have an appetite when they went home. Some long tables were filled with lots of goodies – candy, fruit, and veggies. Naturally, everyone swarmed. Having been a flea, you might think I’d be too small to get in there until the end. Actually, having been a flea (and yes, small), I got there first!
At one end, there was a large pile of apples. Next to the apples was a note: “Take only one. God is watching.” Dutifully complying, I took one (the upside of which was that left plenty of room for other stuff). Someone’s parents brought a tray of carrots and broccoli. No note needed there. Fortunately, most parents understood the assignment and, at the far end of the tables, lay the “treasures of Adonai”: chocolate chip cookies! I loaded up maybe fifteen cookies next to my apple. That was when I remembered the note at the other end of the table. I took the apple, bit into it, and let it hang there in my mouth. I scooped up the cookies and put them in my pockets. I took my paper plate, turned it over, wrote a note on it and placed it next to the remaining cookies. As I was walking away, I heard another kid reading the plate with glee. It said, “Take all you want. God’s watching the apples!”
As you can see, I began thinking about God at a very early age. Fortunately, my thinking matured a bit over time. I see God everywhere, reminding me how lucky I am to be part of Creation, how lucky I am to have consciousness and the ability to care and to love, how lucky I am to do my part to take care of Creation, and how lucky I am to have good people in my life and throughout the world with whom to share it all.
Danusha Lameris is a poet and author who lives in Santa Cruz, California. Her second book, Bonfire Opera, is due out early next year. As we contemplate the meaning of these Holy Days just past, reconciling them with the challenge of Sukkot and the open rooftop, I’m going to give her the last word. I think she can point the way forward for many of us:
I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you” when someone sneezes, a leftover from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying. And sometimes, when you spill lemons from your grocery bag, someone else will help you pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other. We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot, and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder, and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass. We have so little of each other, now. So far from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange. What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here, have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”