In the Image of God: Created from Compost
Kol ha nichalim holchim el hayam, v’hayam aneinu maleh, el makom she hanichalim holchim, sham hem shavim lalechet. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full; to the place from which they flow, the streams flow back again (Ecc 1:7). I hear profound beauty, amazement, and hope in these words. How incredible that the waters of our earth are interconnected so that all streams flow into the sea, and yet somehow find their way back to the place they started from? That the sea constantly receives water from many sources, yet never is filled to capacity? The daily workings of the world are like the pulsing of our hearts, constantly working to cycle life-sustaining nutrients to all parts of our ecosystem. There is a natural ebb and flow to the universe that follows the most basic of scientific principles: matter is never created or destroyed; it is simply changed in form. How then was the world created and what is the role of human beings on this planet?
Beresheit bara elohim et hashamayim v’et ha aretz, v’ha aretz hayta tohu v’vohu. In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was tohu v’vohu. Everett Fox’s translation of this verse creates a powerful picture in my mind. He uses the words “wild and waste” to describe the tohu and vohu that existed before creation. From this reading I imagine an untamed wasteland, overgrown, with remnants and refuse strewn about haphazardly, lying lifeless.
Midrash Rabbah amplifies this idea by relaying a parable of a king who builds his palace on a site of sewers, dunghills, and garbage. The midrash asks if one were to acknowledge this waste as the foundation of the palace, would he not discredit it? Relating this parable to our creation story, the midrash goes on to equate tohu and vohu to the dunghills and garbage. It concludes that we would indeed discredit God by acknowledging tohu and vohu as the basis of the world, and explains that the only reason we can even entertain this idea is because it is written right there in the Torah.
What an incredibly radical idea this midrash puts forth! Not only that there was matter that pre-existed God’s creating, but that the very foundation of our world is piles of rotting refuse. This reading is totally transgressive to some traditional images of God. Can you imagine the angelic beings in their pristine white robes hovering over a mound of earth writhing with worms? Rather than being the maker of miracles who can create something out of nothing; God takes teaming, steaming waste and restores it to life and productivity. God sees the potential in everything, God adds energy and intention and, in so doing, God turns waste into the world.
If the world was wrought from trash by God, the ultimate transformer, what is the place of human beings in this story of creation and transformation? There are a multitude of passages in Torah that give insight into the purpose of human beings and provide guidance for how to live. I want to look at the very first, and arguably most essential reason.
God places Adam in the garden “l’ovdah ul’shomrah,” to serve it and to guard it. In the rabbinic imagination there are many possibilities for what this could mean. Ibn Ezra reads l’ovdah as what man does in relation to the trees of the garden from which he eats, as well as the practical task of keeping the garden watered. In a similar vein, he reads l’shomrah as man protecting the vegetation of the garden by keeping the animals out of it. While Ibn Ezra lays out one picture of Adam caring for the garden, I think there is another, more thrilling motive to explore in imagining why this task is the task first given to us.
This year is the first year that I have really had a garden to tend through all the seasons and so far it has been a magical enterprise. Being connected to a piece of land has given me opportunities for noticing, not just the big, beautiful changes like bursts of colors when the perennials pop up for the first time, but the subtle day to day or even hour to hour changes of seedlings growing – working their way up through the soil, unfurling tender green leaves and pulsing down grounding white roots. Tending a garden has taught me the value of patience, of waiting and watching and letting things happen in their own natural time. Over the cycle of the year the garden teaches me to understand that change and growth are constantly happening. Even in the bitter cold of winter, under mounds if ice and snow, the garlic that we planted in the fall took root and flourished under ground. Now, in the spring, we can see the bright stalks of green shooting out from the soil, but the seeds were alive and growing before any of that came to the surface. Tending a garden brings us in contact with the inspiring strength and humbling fragility of life, and teaches us our place in the cycle as one that requires the utmost care and intention combined with the greatest humility.
In reading l’ovdah ul’shomrah, the medieval commentators focus on the mapik hey ending of these two words. What, exactly are human beings meant to be serving and guarding? These commentators bring up the ambiguity around the word “gan,” which would be the most obvious answer to this question. The word gan is often understood as being a masculine noun, which would then imply that the mapik hey refers to another entity. While Radak poses one solution—that this feminine ending could refer to the adamah rather than the gan—I think that there is an essential truth being missed here. Through the physical act of gardening, we are not only tending the land, but we are tending ourselves. There is an intrinsic relationship between cultivating the soil and cultivating the self. Humans work on transforming the soil on behalf of the plants and in so doing we are transformed ourselves. Perhaps the ambiguity of the mapik hey leaves room for us to read l’odvdah ul’shomrah as referring to another feminine noun – namely to the nefesh, the soul.
Koheleth’s words about the flowing stream evoke for me a similar sentiment uttered in a very different tone by Walt Whitman, the transcendentalist. The same existentialist challenge to which Koheleth responds with cynicism and doubt at the meaning of life, Whitman, by contrast, responds in utter amazement at the ability of the Earth to renew herself. He writes, “Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient, it grows such sweet things out of such corruptions…it renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops, it gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.” God, the ultimate composter, created the world through tohu and vohu. Human beings were placed in the garden to serve it and guard it. God transforms God’s self and the world through a large-scale process of turning piles of trash into the treasures of the world. God placed us in the garden so that we could connect to the cycles of rebirth and renewal and stay awake and amazed to the potentiality surrounding us. As we work the earth, we work our souls, and as we work our souls we become better mirrors of the Divine. Ultimately, then, God places man in the garden to fulfill God’s original intention: Vayivra Elohim et ha adam b’tzalmo, b’tzelem Elohim bara oto.” God created the human in Gd’s image, in the image of God, God created him” (Gen 1:27).