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In the Garden, Spirituality Also Grows

By Rabbi Nina H. Mandel, ’03

Here are a few things I learn each year from my garden:

I do not think of what I do as gardening. I call it “horticultural therapy” and it has become my most profound spiritual experience. It allows me to engage with nature in a primal and tactile way. From the first sign that winter is winding down, I am out there in my yard, digging in the dirt, clearing brush, cutting back unruly vines, and plotting what to do during the time between when the soil thaws and the mud dries out. And while I am out there breaking fingernails and straining a back gone weak from the winter months, I am digging myself out of winter stagnation.

Working with the earth and the grass and the trees keeps me rooted (no pun intended) in the seasonal cycle better than any calendar. I know summer has started when my garlic plants send out their pre-harvest scapes. I know it is peaking when the beetles shimmer on the wisteria leaves, and I know it is almost over when the portulaca has become leggy and people start leaving baskets of tomatoes on my porch.

Yet it is not only about rebirth and growth. I am also learning and relearning the lesson about not being attached to results. The rabbits and birds almost always feast on the berries before I can, no matter how much netting I lay out. And I truly do not have enough sunshine in my yard to grow cucumbers, no matter how often I reposition the planters. Yet I am the fortunate one who does not rely solely on my garden to feed me, so I can grow food for the wildlife and plant things for the sheer fun of it.

Sometimes the garden also teaches me about loss and healing. One year, after a summer of careful planning and restructuring paths and beds, the rivers and creeks decided to break free, burying my lawn in muck and filling the first floor of my house with water and mud. But even in the face of this destruction, I realized that I was still the fortunate one. My house was repaired and the next spring I got to witness the grass and the flowers and the weeds reclaim their rightful place in the sun.

The earth is not mine to conquer or contain, it is here to show me the power, hope and rakhmanut (compassion) of the cycle of creation.

Topics: Spirituality