The Spiritual Gardener
“There is not a blade of grass that does not have a lot above that strikes it and tells it, ‘Grow’” (Midrash Raba 10:6).
Surprising as it may be, our leisurely gardening pastimes reflect our own spiritual roots, and we can relate to them by sheer reflection using the wisdom of Kabbalah.
And God said: 'Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind.
The symbol most associated with the wisdom of Kabbalah is the Tree of Life. Kabbalah and all the ancient writings are replete with examples from the plant kingdom. Ancient Hebrew Scriptures used the spiritual roots of vegetation to explain human spiritual growth processes. They used it as a learning tool, and we can benefit by using it to “touch base” with our souls.
The words below are based on a letter written by Kabbalist Rabbi Baruch Ashlag, the firstborn son and successor of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, also known as Baal HaSulam. In his letter, Rabbi Ashlag explains to his students that the works of the field reflect spiritual processes, and how we can experience them.
Adam and the Tree of Life
In Kabbalah, the terms, “nature” and “Creator” are considered synonymous. The term, “life” is defined as being in contact with nature and its Creator, and the word, “tree” can either symbolize “life,” meaning contact with the Creator, or “knowledge,” understanding why the Creator works the way He does. Actually, the degree called The Tree of Knowledge is the highest spiritual degree a person can achieve.
The first person to discover the Tree of Life was Adam. He was an ordinary person who felt inclined to research and discover what lies beyond our world. When Moses described what happened to Adam, he used the image of a tree to describe Adam’s relationship with the Creator. The Creator told him he could eat of every tree in the garden except for the Tree of Knowledge, reflecting the last and only degree Adam couldn’t reach.
The Creator knew that if Adam discovered the knowledge contained in that tree, he would want to leave the Garden, since he would know as much as the Creator. That, in turn, would detach him from the Creator—life—which is why the Creator forbade him to eat of that tree. We all know what happened: Adam ate, and as a result, we are all denied of Adam’s promised eternal life.
But all has not been lost. The Creator also gave us ancient writings that teach us how we can return to the Garden of Eden. He also gave us examples, which Kabbalah calls “branches.” These branches can indicate how things really work. If we study the writings along with the right explanations, we will understand the spiritual processes that manifest in every plant, and we will learn to emulate them in our souls.
What Moses Meant
By the sweat of your face you will eat bread.
In Moses’ time, spirituality was a tangible reality. Everyone experienced the spiritual world, just as we experience the physical world today. At the time, there wasn’t the rift that exists today between us and spirituality. People then didn’t have to learn spirituality; they lived it. When Moses wrote his Torah (Pentateuch), he used the spoken language of his time so people would understand him. The difference between Moses’ contemporaries and people today is that they knew he was using mundane words to explain spiritual concepts, while we think he was actually referring to our physical world. Indeed, how can we think otherwise? We no longer feel spirituality the way our predecessors did.
This is why Kabbalists refer to the language of the Bible as “the language of roots and branches.” Our world is only the outermost layer of the spiritual worlds; it is only a shell, the farthest branch of a great tree.
To fully understand life you must explore it where it really happens—at its roots. This is what Moses explained. “By the sweat of your face you will eat bread,” he tells us. In other words, if we want to eat (become spirituality nourished) we need to work (sweat) for it. Since Adam’s sin, contact with the Creator is not a given; instead, we must cultivate it, using every means at our disposal. And the promised reward is priceless: it is our access to the Tree of Knowledge.
For is the tree of the field a man
Just like a tree, to be ready to bear (spiritual) fruit, you and I need to experience the same work we do on trees and plants. If we graft, powder, fertilize, and weed those parts in our souls requiring cultivation, our spirituality will enhance and fill our lives with joy. If we nourish our souls, we will be “like a tree planted by streams of water, that bringeth forth its fruit in its season, and whose leaf doth not wither” (Psalms 1:3). It only takes a few ground rules to tend to our inner “plants.”
Like plants, human beings can’t grow without fertilizers. In Webster’s dictionary, “a fertilizer is a substance (as manure or a chemical mixture) used to make soil more fertile.” In plants, the fertilizer needs to be brought from the outside. We already have plenty of “manure” within us; we needn’t bring it from the outside, but rather correct what is already within us. For that, we need to recognize which of our qualities are improper (manure) and correct them (turn them into fertilizer) using the method of Kabbalah. This is the essence of spiritual gardening.
When Kabbalists speak of improper qualities, they speak not about socially indecent qualities, but of spiritual qualities, those which relate to our relationship with the Creator. In the end it does make us treat each other better, but we must keep in mind that the final goal of Kabbalah is to return to the Garden of Eden, to the spiritual world.
In spirituality, “hoeing” means examining the depths of one’s soul. According to Kabbalah, only there, within ourselves, will we discover why we have come into this world. The answers to all of life’s questions rest deep within us. If we want to find them, we must ”hoe” into our souls and dig them out.
Remove Excess Leaves
While we are studying Kabbalah to rediscover the Creator, the “leaves” are our efforts and desires to discover Him. Once we establish this connection, these efforts and desires become “fruits.” We do not change who we are, only our focus of attention: “spirituality” means focusing on the Creator, while “corporeality” means focusing on ourselves.
Leaves are very important. They are beautiful, provide shade, and protect the fruits while they are growing. There shouldn’t be so many leaves that they exhaust the tree’s water and energy, but we do need to have enough leaves to help the fruits grow lush and plentiful. Similarly, when you are learning how to become spiritual, don’t worry if you haven’t made contact with the Creator quickly. Your attempts are your “leaves.” Even if you’re unaware of it, they are protecting the fruits already growing within you, hidden among the foliage.
“Powdering,” in Hebrew called LeAbbek, means covering with powder or dust. It also means struggling. To connect to the Creator, we have to bridge the barrier between our world and the spiritual world. We are born completely self-centered; and to connect to the Creator, to nature, we need to become “Creator-centered.” This implies a struggle, however, because our inborn nature objects to being Creator-centered and sends us thoughts that our connection with Him is not a worthwhile goal. Therefore, we must “powder” these thoughts and cover them with our conviction of the importance and the merit of our goal.
And God said: ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.’
We’ve saved the best for last. Water exists above—in Heaven—and below—on Earth. It is the ultimate solvent and the prime ingredient of everything alive. Not surprisingly, water also represents the Creator, specifically, His quality of mercy. As the Creator is omniscient, water, too, retains information about everything it touches. Plants can use this quality in water, which tells them when to bud and when to blossom.
To grow, a plant needs only water and a few minerals, which it often takes from the water itself. No other substance can replace water as the sole cause of evolution and growth. The hydrological cycle allows water to connect the “higher” worlds (air or sky) with the “lower” words (earth), just as the Creator does in spirituality. Knowing when and how much to “water” one’s soul with the quality of the Creator is therefore the single most important piece of information a seeker of spirituality needs.
Becoming a “Spiritual Gardener”
The wisdom of Kabbalah was hidden for many centuries—from the days of Abraham, the Patriarch, to the end of the 20th century. Today, however, we can all enjoy what it has to offer. To a spiritual person, Kabbalah is the hoe, the pruning shears, and the plow. The Creator gives the water of life, and we need only turn our “waste” into fertilizer and discover the Creator so that our souls can blossom. In the words of King Solomon, this knowledge “is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her, and happy is every one that holdest her fast” (Proverbs 3:18).