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Holy Gardening

By Rabbi Ted Riter ~ Kol Nidre 2011 / 5772
There was once a Royal Gardener who was tasked with the job of taking care of all of the grounds at the royal palace. He took his job very seriously. For he knew that wherever the King should walk inside the walls of the castle, he should be surrounded only by beauty, and he should never have to see what the gardener deemed as the ugliness that existed outside the confines of the King’s home.
And so it was true, that wherever the King went, he was greeted by the most beautiful flowers anyone had ever seen.
The gardener prided himself in finding the finest seeds in the kingdom, ones that grew into the most magnificent foliage, sprouting an entire rainbow of colors, and lending the most wonderful smelling bouquet to the entire palace grounds, both inside and out.
The gardener would use only the purest of waters to nourish these gardens. He would travel far and wide to find the very best of fertilizers and compost, to ensure that indeed, the King would find no finer gardens anywhere else. For surely, anything short of this would upset and disappoint the King.
The gardener would painstakingly sift through the beds and the patches and the yards, looking for even one flower out of place.
And it was while doing this particular work that the Gardener would occasionally come across a weed. This was always very unsettling to him. After all, how could there be such ugliness existing side by side with the utter goodness of his flowers? And so he would carefully remove the weed, sometimes muttering and cursing its mere existence under his breath. But then all would be well and beautiful again, once the unsightly outsider was removed.
One night, a massive windstorm blew in across the kingdom, and with it came trash and litter and all sorts of debris. That next morning the gardener went to work cleaning up the mess that the storm had made of the royal gardens, and by the end of the day, he was pleased once again with their complete beauty and pureness, knowing that they were again fit for the King.
However, a few days later, the gardener noticed a weed that had sprouted amongst his flowers. And as he went to remove it, he found another, and another, until he looked around and realized that his beautiful gardens had been corrupted by dandelion flowers that must have blown in with the winds.
He called for all the experts in the kingdom to come and help him to remove the invaders. One man tried killing the dandelions with poison, and that did not work. Another attempted to burn out the dandelion weeds with fire, also to no avail. They tried insects, and smothering and even reseeding, but the dandelions remained.
Finally, the gardener went to the King, with his head bowed low. He told the King of his struggles, and asked the King for his best advice, vowing to take whatever action would be necessary to restore the gardens to their previous splendor, even if it meant giving up his post.
Upon great consideration, the King placed his hand upon the gardener’s shoulder, and said to him, “Your flowers are without question absolutely beautiful, and I have always appreciated each and every one. And are not dandelions flowers too? My best advice to you is to learn to see the beauty that exists in them and learn to love them, too.”
Who are you in this story? Think about this for a minute. Are you the Royal Gardener, the King? Are you the beautiful flowers that the Royal Gardener nurtures – the roses, tulips, daisies? Are you the dandelion?
Our Jewish tradition teaches that every morning we should wake up and recite: “Elohai n’shamah shenatata bi, t’horah hi / God, the soul you have given me is pure.” We are all pure, we are all beautiful, we are all holy.
Where do you see it? How does this play out for you? Who do you deem a daisy, and who a dandelion? Where and in whom do you only see an absence of holiness?
In tomorrow afternoon’s Torah portion we are taught, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And, 20th century philosopher Eric Hoffer suggests: “The remarkable thing is that we really (do) love our neighbor as ourselves: we do unto others as we do unto ourselves . . .we are tolerant toward others when we tolerate ourselves. We forgive others when we forgive ourselves.” However, he also notes that, “We hate others when we hate ourselves. We are prone to sacrifice others when we are ready to sacrifice ourselves.”
If we do, in fact, treat others as we treat ourselves, we will only see the best in someone else, the humanity in someone else, the holiness in someone else, when we finally see it in ourselves.
But here too, some of us are challenged. Someone along the way convinced us that we were not worthy of holiness. We did not meet their expectations, we could/should be better. Or maybe, any self inklings of holiness were buffeted by the idea that we should suppress our egos. However it happens, we beat ourselves up. Some of us physically, some emotionally, some spiritually. We find ways to sabotage our professional successes and our personal relationships. We forever yearn to be a rose. We may even actually believe that we are that rose, but with our current system of self-judgment, we can only envision ourselves as dandelions.
Are you in this picture somewhere? Do you hold yourself to impossible standards? Do you disappoint yourself? Do you allow yourself to see your own beauty?
How do we get to this place? How do we see the humanity even in the ugliness of the world? How do we learn to see the beauty in ourselves? How do we learn to open ourselves to appreciating the holiness in one another? How do we see that weeds are flowers too?
Perhaps our Yom Kippur Torah readings have an answer.
Tomorrow afternoon’s Torah portion, from Leviticus 19, is called “The Holiness Code.” It begins, “You shall be holy, because I your God am holy.” It then goes on to prescribe the actions that we can take to find our personal holiness: How we should treat strangers and mete out justice, how we should care for the poor and regard our parents. Then, in a rarely discussed verse within this passage it commands us this action: “Do not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block in front of the blind.” This is a case of our Torah text using an extreme example to prove a point: If we did either of these things – cursed the deaf or tripped up the blind -- who would know it was us? And, if we value each other, respect each other, and treat each other well even when we could get away with the opposite, then we are recognizing the holiness and the humanity in others. We are being holy!
In this way, doing good in the world for other people leads us to holiness ourselves. Actions lead us to understand our holiness.
So what are your actions in your “Holiness Code?” What can you take on this year? Today, the observance of Yom Kippur is supposed to resemble our day of death. This is the reason we wear our white burial shrouds, this is the reason that at the beginning of the service we stared into the open ark, symbolic of our empty awaiting casket, this is the reason we refrain from earthly activities like eating and drinking and procreating. This is our metaphoric day of death. And, if we are standing here this day, and we make it through to tomorrow, we are given a chance at a new year, at a new life. What are you going to do to bring more holiness into this world? What are you going to do to bring more holiness into your world?
For some of us, our actions can lead to understanding. For some of us, our understanding can lead to action. Tomorrow morning’s portion, from the Book of Deuteronomy, makes this case quite simply: “I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse . . . Choose life!” Commit to life and goodness and holiness, and our actions will follow in line and we will all be blessed.
What a profound statement. We get to choose how we view other people in this world. We get to choose how we view ourselves in this world. And when we make this choice with our heads and our hearts and our souls, then our words and deeds bring this holiness into the material world.
Granted, sometimes people keep their holiness well hidden. Sometimes we even hide it from ourselves. But it is there and we can access it. This is our choice to make regardless of the circumstances that swell around us. It may sound like the most difficult thing in the world, but this same Torah portion tells us that these commandments, these concepts are not too hard for us, not too remote, “It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who will go up for us to heaven and bring it down to us, that we may do it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who will cross the sea for us. . .?’ No, it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, and you can do it.”
It is not so hard, it is not so distant, but I know that we do not all want to go there. We do not all think that we can get to this place where we see the humanity and the holiness in ourselves and others. For whatever personal reasons we might have, we hold back. We cling to our story that we are right and they are wrong. We cling to our vision that they are weeds. We sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously cling to the belief that we are weeds.
I’m going to do something tonight that I typically do not do. I’m going to pull the “Rabbi’s Card.” You have entrusted me with this pulpit, you have asked me to lead this congregation. You have wept on my shoulder and celebrated in my arms. I have named your children, I have stood with you as you smashed a glass under the chuppah, and I have held you as a loved one drew a final breath in a hospital room. I have steadied you as you put earth on a loved one’s casket, and I have spoken with you as you have prepared for your own day of death.
I am asking that you listen to me now and really absorb what I am saying:
You are beautiful.
You are pure.
And, you are holy.
Tonight, I am giving you the encouragement and the permission to see these things for yourselves and to see if for others.
Regardless of what last year or the last years may have looked like, tonight we all get a chance to start again. We are here to atone. We are here to start anew. And, if we can do this, then we have to believe that that person whom we have always seen as a weed, the one sitting down the aisle and the one across the country can do the same thing.
The great Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev awoke one morning and before beginning his prayers said to himself: “Levi Yitzchak, today you are going to behave correctly—you are going to be a good person!” But then he sighed and said: “But Levi Yitzchak said that yesterday as well and he wasn’t such a good person for the rest of the day.” And then he said to himself: “Never mind yesterday, today Levi Yitzchak truly means it!”
A couple of times a week, I get home after my daughter Orli is in bed. She may have been a rascal that day. She may have tormented our dog or my wife Corey. She may have been a little terror. But when I slip into her room, look at her sleeping, and give her a kiss goodnight, she is beautiful and holy. And someday, I’ll teach her to acknowledge this every morning when she awakes: “Elohai n’shamah shenatata bi, t’horah hi / God, the soul you have given me is pure.”
This prayer – this concept of purity and holiness -- is available to us all – on Yom Kippur and on every other day of the year. We are the Royal Gardeners who nurture the flowers. We are the King who sees the beauty, the humanity, the holiness all around. We are all daisies and tulips and daffodils. And yes, we are all dandelions. And, dandelions are beautiful flowers too.
G’mar Hatima Tovah - May we all be sealed in the holy Book of Life for the new year.
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