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 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.





First eBook Edition: April 2003

The author is grateful for permission to include the following previously copyrighted material:

Excerpt from "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas, from The Poems of Dylan Thomas. Copyright © 1952 by Dylan Thomas. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. and J. M. Dent.

"when god decided to invent" by e. e. cummings. Copyright 1944, © 1972, 1991 by the Trustees for the e. e. cummings Trust; excerpt from "somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond" by e. e. cummings. Copyright 1931, © 1959, 1991 by the Trustees for the e. e. cummings Trust. Copyright © 1979 by George James Firmage, from Complete Poems: 1904–1962 by e. e. cummings, edited by George J. Firmage. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.

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Writing about gardening is as lonely a chore as gardening itself. Yet one can rarely do either without the help of others. Gardeners rely on the experience and wisdom of those who before them labored in the soil, learned from the effort, and passed their knowledge to the next generation. People who write know how indebted they are to those who surround them for the advice, guidance, and inspiration that turn a vague idea into a reality.

I am either one of the luckiest people in the world or a person who, for reasons I cannot comprehend, the Great One decided to save from self-destruct. How else to explain the extraordinary good fortune of having Arnold Dolin as my editor? If I did not know better I would say our meeting and his willingness to work with me was bashert — Yiddish for fore-ordained. His gentle but firm direction guided me at every turn. He even made rewriting almost a joy. He is an exact and exacting craftsman, but his patience with me was unbounded. He is a legend in the world of publishing, and now I know why he richly deserves his splendid reputation. This volume would never have come to birth without his professional oversight and, I hope, his friendly faith in me.

Arnold introduced me to my agent, Sarah Lazin of Sarah Lazin Books. At a time when I needed all the encouragement I could get, Sarah expressed confidence in the project even before it was warranted. Sarah led me to Little, Brown and through that relationship to Deborah Baker, my editor there. Most of Deborah's trenchant and demanding suggestions have found their way into this book. Deborah Baker is a formidable editor and a fine writer. Her skills reflect the depth of her personal resources. Once again, good fortune smiled kindly on me.

For over a decade, Lawrence Kirshbaum, CEO of AOL Time Warner Book Group, has watched this book pass through its several permutations. From its earliest incarnation he encouraged me, sometimes chided me, frequently berated me, and suffered with me as I journeyed through the "black holes" of self-doubt and despair. I will always treasure Larry's quiet confidence. Larry is a person who enables.

Doris Brickner was among the first who shared her knowledge with me. She helped me learn how to do more than just look at flowers. She helped me understand the deeper meaning of planting a garden. I am indebted to her for that introduction.

My indebtedness to my assistant, Gloria Adell, can only be hinted at in this brief paragraph. She labored patiently through endless bouts of writing and rewriting, and always she did so with a wonderful sense of humor and a boundless willingness to give of herself. Late hours, frantic calls late in an evening or too early in the morning, frenzied demands for misplaced papers, left her unfazed. Gloria is just that: "gloria." I am acutely grateful and most fortunate.

It is my loving companion, Marcia Soltes, who, to use the words of Dylan Thomas, remains "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower." She is the one who, listening to my poorly conceived ideas at the end of a gardening day, encouraged me to write them down. She conceptualized the book long before I did. When self-confidence would desert me, Marcia would rebuild my shattered ego, directing me back to thought and keyboard. Marcia was and remains that force in my life that drives far more than any flower. Marcia is the sum of all the elements that, regardless of the season, make the garden of my life bloom. It is no accident that it was into the earth of our home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, I sank the shovel, planted the bed, and enjoyed the first bounteous armful of flowers that became this book. Woods Whole, as she calls it, has always been her spiritual well. It now also nourishes me.

It is a good life. I am constantly aware of the spirit flowing through all that happens to me. I am a most blessed man.


Woods Whole

Stockbridge, Massachusetts

June 2001


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 after-death 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 oft-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 turtle-head, 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. Adam and Eve disobeyed a direct order from God not to eat of the tree of knowledge, and for that they were expelled. Herein lies the burden of their (and our) uniqueness: they had a choice, and they made the wrong one. Humanity's first sin was a wrongful use of its free will. The Eden story is not about sex; it is about disobedience and free will. That is the sum and substance of the story — no more, no less. The brilliant seventeenth-century English poet John Milton conveyed the true meaning of Eden when he wrote in Paradise Lost:

… whose fault?

Whose but his own? ingrate, he had of me

All he could have; I made him just and right,

Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

… they themselves decreed

Their own revolt, not I.

. . . . . . . .

They trespass, Authors to themselves in all

Both what they judge and what they choose; for so

I formed them free, and free they must remain,

Till they enthrall themselves….

. . . . . . . . . . .

… they themselves ordained their fall.

True, Adam and Eve were tempted, but they could have said no. That "could have" makes all the difference.


Rational faith rests on the pillar of free will. Unless we are free to make choices in our lives, we are only puppets operating at the will of some other force, and we are not responsible for our behavior. We can blame someone or something else for what we do and for what happens to us. Many of Hitler's Nazis did just that. They claimed they were only following orders. The Allies did not buy their argument, and many of Hitler's minions were tried, imprisoned, or executed for their war crimes. History is full of examples of those who have tried to escape the consequences of their actions by claiming that they had no choice.

An even more dangerous consequence of the argument that we have no choice, that we are compelled by some outside force such as God into a course of negative action, is that it makes of God a demonic, sometimes cruel Master Puppeteer, responsible for people doing horrible things to one another. But we do have free will, and we must be responsible for our actions. One might question, then, what that view does to the idea that God is omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing). Do we not limit God's powers by so strongly insisting on free will and human choice?

Rabbi Akiba, a distinguished and oft-quoted first-century rabbi, understood the dilemma and responded, "Everything is seen, yet freedom is given." How can that be? we ask. Each of us, he continued, is born with a golden chain. One end of the chain is attached to our ankle, the other to a leg of the throne of God. But the chain is so long and so light that we never know we are on it.

Let me dramatize the point. Did God want the Holocaust? Does God really want any war? Is God some vengeful, bloodthirsty force that delights in people killing each other? Many people think that wars are inevitable. But would we want our political leaders and diplomats to stop negotiating for peace when conflict threatens? Of course not. We want to believe that human brains at work can resolve international tensions better than guns can. We want to believe that we are neither trapped nor doomed by the evil and hurt and pain that surround us and that we inflict on one another. We want to believe that we can shape what happens. It is faith, not fate, that shapes our lives — faith in ourselves and in our finer capacities. That is the kind of faith that makes sense.

There is a fascinating verse at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses is about to die. He stands before the people he has led for a generation, there to share with them for the last time the summation of all he has tried to teach them during the wilderness years. His words take on dramatic intensity: "I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day; I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose your life — if you and your offspring would live …for thereby you shall have life and shall long endure" (Deut. 30:19).

Choose life. It is in your hands, says Moses. What you choose will determine whether you continue or go out of existence as a people. Of course, what Moses wanted the people to choose were the ethical and ritual demands God had placed before them at Sinai, but he knew that God could not force the people of Israel to accept them. God had given the people choice. The people had the freedom to reject it all, and if any part of the biblical narrative is to be believed, they indeed did reject the demands as frequently as they accepted them. They worshiped false gods. They created places of worship, called high places, where sacred prostitution flourished. They left much to be desired in the way they conducted their business affairs. The writings of such prophets as Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah are replete with examples of Israel's bad choices. They explained that it was these decisions, not God's will to destroy the people, that resulted in their exile to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, its powerful warlord, after he captured Jerusalem and reduced the temple to smoking ruins.


The Bible's early emphasis on humanity's free will appears again in the fratricidal tragedy found in chapter 4 of Genesis: the Cain and Abel story. No sooner were Adam and Eve out of the garden than Eve became pregnant — first with Cain and then with Abel. Never were there more mismatched brothers than these two.

"Abel became a keeper of sheep and Cain became a tiller of the soil" (Gen. 4:2). Enmity between farmer and shepherd is as old as human settlement. It is likely that this story of fraternal hate was included by the biblical writers to champion the rights of the shepherd over the rights of the farmer. The "school" that wrote this legend came from the southern mountainous section of ancient Canaan, where shepherding was the primary way of life and remained so until very recent times. As a young child living with my family for a year in what was then known as Palestine, I frequently saw herds of goats and sheep moving through the landscape of our community just south of Jerusalem. Shepherding was the way of life for the Bedouin who freely traveled that countryside.


On Sale
Jun 27, 2009
Page Count
240 pages