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Finding God in the Garden: Backyard Reflections on Life, Love, and Compost
by Rabbi Balfour Brickner
Warner Books, 2002

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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 afterdeath 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 oftturned 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 turtlehead, 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.

The story of Cain and Abel is well known. They seem never to have lived in peace with each other. A ritual act brought matters to a head. Both offered sacrifices to their Deity. Abel's was accepted (the sign of that acceptance is not given us), Cain's rejected. Cain was furious.

God asked Cain, "Why are you angry?" (Gen. 4:6), as if the Eternal One did not know. But God did know, even as God probably knew what Cain was about to do. God did all that could be done to prevent what the Eternal saw coming.

And the Lord said to Cain: why are you angry? And why is your face fallen? If you do well, shall it not be lifted up? And if you do not well, sin crouches at the door and unto you is its desire, but thou mayest rule over it. Gen. 4:7 (italics added)

The Hebrew words are "v'atah timshal ba." The construction of the language is telling.

Not only did the author John Steinbeck see the nuances here, but he built his entire novel East of Eden on understanding the powerful meaning of this fragment of conversation. Steinbeck rejected the translation of the phrase as found in the American Standard Version of the Bible — "Do thou rule over it" — which makes it an order, not what the text implies. Similarly, he rejected the King James translation of these words: "Thou shalt rule over him." This, he observed, is a promise that Cain would conquer sin. But the original text makes no such promise.

Steinbeck came to see the real meaning of the original Hebrew, and he put the explanation in the mouth of his character Lee, the Chinese cook and intellectual hero of East of Eden:

"Don't you see?" he cried. "The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in 'Thou shalt,' meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel — 'Thou mayest' — that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if 'Thou mayest' — it is also true that 'Thou mayest not.' Don't you see?". . .

". . .Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, 'Do thou,' and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in 'Thou shalt.' Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But 'Thou mayest'! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win. . . . It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.". . .

". . .I feel that a man is a very important thing — maybe more important than a star. That is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed — because 'Thou mayest.'" The use of the word may conveys exactly what the biblical writers wanted to say to their readers: we are given free will to choose the course of our behavior. Just imagine this exchange between God and Cain: "Cain! Whoa! Wait a minute. Think about what you are doing. You're angry now, but you don't have to kill Abel. Put down the weapon in your hand. Cool off a minute. Think it over. The sin of anger crouches at the door of your will. It tempts you, but wait, you can control it. You may rule over it. You are better than your present anger." That was all God could do or say.

Poor Cain! He probably could not even hear God at this moment. With adrenaline pumping through his entire being, maybe it was too much to expect Cain to step back. In any event, he didn't. With some instrument (the Bible does not tell us what kind), he killed Abel. God cried out, "Where is your brother? What have you done? Your brother's blood cries out to me" (Gen. 4:10). Immediately, Cain was overwhelmed with remorse and self-pity: "You have banished me this day from the soil and I must avoid your presence and become a restless wanderer on earth" (Gen. 4:14).

God and Cain no longer saw each other. Their faces were hidden from each other. How graphically accurate is this image. The moment we choose badly, act stupidly, hurt one another, we blind ourselves not only to one another but also to all that the word Divinity might mean in our lives.


The notion that God cannot command our moral choices is reflected through a well-known line found in the Talmud, Judaism's definitive postbiblical authority. There, in tractate Berakot 33b, we read that "everything is in the hands of God except the fear of God." By "fear" the writer meant respect for, not dread of. The writer was exact. He wanted to convey the idea that God cannot force humanity to respect the Divinity or to follow God's wishes. People must freely choose to do that.

This is a remarkable thought, especially when one considers that it was written in the first century by men of great faith, who believed that God was both omniscient and omnipotent. There is also biblical precedent for it. In the wilderness, Moses rejected God's demand that he speak to the rock to bring water from it. Moses struck the rock instead (Num. 20). King Saul lost his throne because he chose to reject a divine commandment to totally destroy the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15). The Book of Jonah is the story of a man fleeing from God's explicit command to go to Nineveh and urge its citizens to repent. These incidents illustrate the idea that God cannot force people to do what God would like them to do. People must choose of their own free will. And they do, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

If we assume that God is all-knowing and wants what is best for us (there is an old saying, "If God is not good, he is not God"), how could God have allowed Hitler to destroy six million Jews in the Holocaust and twenty million people during World War II? How could God allow Serbs and Albanians to butcher each other in Kosovo? How could a God who we presume wants the best for humanity allow African tribes to slaughter one another in Uganda? How does God allow all the terrors that stalk our earth each day, sometimes perpetrated by individuals and institutions that have the temerity to call themselves religious?

Is there anyone anywhere in the world who has not asked himself or herself these questions, sometimes finding his or her inadequate response sufficient justification to abandon all forms of organized religion? Comments such as "It is God's will" or "It is in the hands of Allah" neither satisfy nor justify such actions.

Does God allow these tragedies to happen? Yes. Does God want them to happen? No.

Where was God at Auschwitz? One Jewish writer bitterly observed that during the Holocaust, God went up the chimneys of the crematoriums in the smoke of burning flesh. Such an answer only produces a sneer, and life cannot be lived by sneers. Cynicism does not answer the question, Where was God during this terrible time? There must be a response with which one can live and still find some meaning in a belief system that includes Divinity.

I believe that God cried at Auschwitz. What do I mean by that? Do I think God actually shed tears? Since I do not believe in an anthropomorphic God, one that possesses human qualities, I cannot mean that God literally cried. I speak metaphorically. Because we believe in a Divinity that is life-affirming, life-giving, life-enhancing, we can say only that God must have been deeply saddened — saddened to the point of tears when seeing the brutality that we chose to inflict on one another during this terrible time. Since God gave humanity the free will to act in whatever way it chose, God could not interfere. God could only silently witness and weep at the barbarity.

I believe that God cries wherever and whenever people selfishly and childishly choose to slaughter one another. God hates that behavior, but God cannot do anything about it. The moment God granted humanity free will was the moment God limited God's own self. God is finite. Does that sound like blasphemy? To some, yes. Not to me. My belief system must preserve free will, and I know that free will in some ways limits God. We have enormous knowledge at our command.

We know a lot about how our universe functions. That knowledge allows us to put people on the moon, or in orbit, or on space stations. Because most of this knowledge is so technical, we tend to ignore much of it, often preferring instead to live by preconceived ideas, some of which are at wide variance with the truths our new knowledge has given us. That causes some problems, which I will discuss later on when I write about the modern dilemmas science poses for religion.

We know how to make things grow better now than ever before in the history of the world. We can and do greatly enhance the nutritional value of food. We know how to grow more in less space. We can improve the breeding of living creatures used for food. In fact, we have created a situation in which no one in the world needs to go hungry. If people starve (and millions do), it is for political reasons and not because we have not learned how to make more and better food available. For reasons that upon examination often seem as cruel as they are bizarre and irrational, we have chosen not to exercise our more humane options.

No gardener would ever permit his or her garden to get so far out of balance, so totally discordant, as we have allowed the world to become in matters of food distribution and elementary well-being. A garden is a world in microcosm. For either to flourish, greed needs to be rooted out, whether it comes from a too-powerful weed, a rampant plant in a garden, or a ruler or political system that, in order to accumulate wealth, ignores the poor and hungry of its population. A beautiful garden is an ecologically balanced place, where sunlight, moisture, insects, plants, and birds all have specifically interdependent roles to play. When one gets out of balance, the entire space suffers. The gardener's job is to maintain that God-given balance. Considering the many hostile forces unconsciously at work to destroy that balance, it is amazing that we have as many wonderful garden spaces as we do. The parallel with the world today is obvious.

We know what individuals and societies need to stay alive, to grow, to live in peace. We know, for example, that a grossly unequal distribution of goods and wealth in a community will give rise to discontent, jealousy, and a struggle to redress the imbalance by those who feel deprived. It is in our self-interest as individuals and as people in a community to see that the necessary resources, food, shelter, and work, which give individuals a sense of self-worth, are available to all. There will always be those who have more and those who have less, but we have learned that we cannot accept a situation in which too few have too much and too many have too little. Such a situation breeds discontent and enmity. We know that greed can eventually destroy us and our environment. We can choose to create social situations in which economic equity becomes the norm and greed is controlled. When we permit one society to sink into poverty, we create a situation that is ripe for the rise of one who promises to "save" the people and restore their former glory. Hitler might never have come to power had Germany not been destroyed economically after its 1918 military defeat. America went through a similar challenge during the Great Depression in the early 1930s. Only a democratic process that brought to power a government that understood the needs of an economically and socially sick America saved it from chaos and disaster.

Similarly, the choices we make as individuals — be they in life partners, vocations, the number of children we sire, the educational routes we pursue or ignore— all determine whether our lives are miserable or joyous. Our present and our future are in our own hands.
So where does all this leave God?

When things go wrong, we have a tendency to blame God. But God deserves more and better from us. We know, or at least by now we should know, that God is not responsible for the disasters we create by our own poor social choices. We cannot blame God for our apparent unwillingness to tackle the problems of our inner cities or to improve public education by committing the resources needed for better schools and teachers. We cannot blame God for the human greed that has created and allows to continue the environmental and atmospheric destruction now occurring worldwide, affecting our air, our oceans, and our very lives.

It is we who have made these poor choices. As we do, and because God gave us free will to make these choices, all God can do is weep. This is what I meant by a finite God. God is self-limited. God cannot, on the one hand, grant humanity free will and, on the other hand, interfere every time we make a bad choice. God has restricted God's own power to interfere. The situation is analogous to a child with a parent. At some point in a child's development, the parent has to let the child make his or her own choices. As parents, all we can do is hope and pray that what we have given our children in terms of training, love, and guidance will positively influence their decisions. When the choices are wrong, even as we might have foreseen, all we can do is be there to pick up the pieces, extend our love, reassure, comfort, and keep on going. My father (may he rest in peace) would regularly tell me, especially at moments when I had made a really stupid choice, "I cannot put my head on your shoulders."

We need constantly to remind ourselves that in the realm of social relationships, God does not do. God is. We do.

What we do makes the difference between whether God is expressed or denied in the world. We are the recipients of a tremendous gift, a great garden: earth and its environments. We are placed in the middle of it. We are also the recipients of a great responsibility: to use our free will. What shall we plant? Where shall we plant it? What shall we move or remove? What shall we harvest? We make the choices. God watches. God waits. And above all, God hopes.

Excerpted from Finding God in the Garden by Rabbi Balfour Brickner. Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Balfour Brickner. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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