I was sixteen when I read Candide for the first time. I was in my final semester of my final year of high school when we were assigned Voltaire’s short masterpiece. Miss Liles, our English teacher was a small woman, old by the time she taught us having seen generations of students through their final year of high school English. Her face looked weather-beaten and world weary. But when she spoke of Candide, she actually smiled, a splendid, crooked toothed, knowing sort of smile. She loved Candide and instilled that love in us, her pupils. I have never forgotten the homework she set for us as we finished studying it – ‘You have read it now. Read it again in ten years and ten years after that and ten years later and so on. In every decade of your life, it will mean something different to you.’
And so it has. Aside from the Bible, it is one of the few books that I have consciously read several times. And it is only as I grow older that I begin to understand what Voltaire’s message at the end of the book might truly mean. Candide, the central character, articulates the core message of the book in his final statement at the end of Voltaire’s extended satire of romance, science, philosophy, religion and government. ‘”All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”’
I am not entirely sure what I thought that meant at the age of sixteen. I was at the end of my school life, getting ready to jump into life away from my family for the first time. I had an entire world to discover beyond the boundaries of life in Texas with all the limitations I felt that life held. Tending a garden was what my mother did in her spare time. Now, of course, time has crept up on me and I know what cultivating a garden really means. I am a mother and for much of my time, I, too, tend gardens.
There is the very real garden at home that I have written and spoken about numerous times. From my thriving kitchen garden I have learned many of life’s important lessons about nurture and growth and decay and destruction. I have discovered the power of rain and sun and wind and soil. And I know, in a very small way, what can be earned through the sweat of one’s brow. I apprehend the delicate cycles that hold our natural world in place. When the sun shines all winter and the heavens pour down rain all summer, I know that our eco-systems have gone awry. And I feel the hand of God in all of it.
But there are many types of garden to cultivate, not only the literal sort. For when my English teacher introduced us to Candide, she cultivated our minds. She, like every great teacher I have ever known,she introduced us to the knowledge and ideas that would become the foundations of our critical thinking, the soil into which we could sink our roots. And the world around us became like the sun and the wind and the rain. Minds, too, appear to be delicate things that turn out to be far more resilient than we ever realised. With due care and attention, instruction and engagement, the intellect can provide us with a rich harvest of ideas, nourishment for ourselves and our communities. And in this process, too, I can feel the hand of God.
It is not unlike our parasha this week, Balak. In it, the gentile prophet, Balaam, is summoned by the King of Moab, Balak, to curse the Israelites encamped in the wilderness. But Balaam is a true prophet of the Eternal God and he cannot but speak the words that God plants in his mouth. Balaam can no more curse the Israelites than an apple tree can produce peas. Balaam opens his mouth and out comes praise: How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel. These words we know so well, immortalised not merely in the text of the Bible, but in the opening lines of almost all our liturgies. But the words that follow are the ones that we, perhaps, know less well.
Like winding brooks, like gardens by the river’s side, as aloes which the Eternal One has planted, and like cedars beside the waters. The Israelites are God’s garden; God cultivates them, nurtures them and they flourish. And to what does the prophet liken the people? Winding brooks and riverside gardens. And what does God plant in this garden? Aloes and cedars.
Winding brooks granted life in the ancient Near East. If you have ever spent time in Israel, recall for yourself the environment as you travel in the Galilee towards the Jordan River. Then remember the landscape of the Jordan River itself – lush, green, vibrant with life. The Tigris and Euphrates river valley was the same – rich soil, creating agricultural wealth. Or even the Nile with its annual floods; the alluvial plains of the Nile were what made Egypt rich and fed the population year after year. Winding brooks and riverside gardens were the main source of fresh water without which life could not have been sustained. To be a winding brook or a riverside garden was to be a giver of life.
As to the plant life, aloes would have been valuable plants, part of a plant group known as succulents which thrive in the arid wilderness by retaining moisture in their leaves. This moisture the plants metamorphose into an elixir of great medicinal value. The curative powers of Aloe Vera, in particular, were well known in the ancient world, being used to treat burns, minor wounds and an array of skin conditions. God plants aloes; God tends the people to make of them a balm, a restorative comfort to the world around them.
But the people are also like cedars beside the waters. Of what is this an image? According to Psalm 1, the person whose delight is in the Torah … shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water. To plant a tree beside water, especially by the side of a river, is to grant it an enduring source of life – flowing water. A tree like a cedar may grow majestic drinking of such waters. As a gardener, there can be fewer greater gifts to a plant than to give it such a firm foundation in which to grow. And for the mind those waters are Torah, from whose source flows all the intellect needs to grow and flourish. For the person who can delight in Torah, in God’s teachings, there is an endless source of nourishment for mind and the soul. Such a person is a garden tended by the Eternal.
And that is in the end what we have sought to achieve here at Leo Baeck College – to tend our garden of students, to lead them to delight in Torah, to cultivate their minds and nurture their souls. And so today, as Lea and Peter and Andrea finally complete their studies and are ordained rabbi and teacher in Israel, they are ready to become gardeners themselves, to inspire others with love of Torah, to tend their congregations, to sink their roots deep into the Jewish community and in so doing sustain a healthy Jewish eco-system.
Each of our new rabbis has the skills now to cultivate their own gardens. They can be a winding brook, sustaining Jewish life in their community. They can be an aloe, a balm when their communities suffer. They have drunk deeply at the waters of Torah and have the potential to grow as tall and strong as a cedar.
In particular, Andrea is our winding brook – over the course of these five years he has brought life and light into the world through the emergence of his young family. We at the College who were honoured to join Andrea and Sara as they blessed their new son, Yair, this past spring know that there is a deep well of humanity and passion and love that Andrea brings not only to his own family but to any community that employs him.
Peter is our aloe – granting succour to his deeply traumatised community in Toulouse this year after the unspeakable events there in March. No student, no rabbi, no community should ever have to face what Peter and his congregation faced, yet he has led them with a quiet courage and integrity.
And Lea is our tall cedar tree – she has immersed herself not just in love of Torah, but love of our particular strand of progressive theology, gaining a distinction from Kings College London in her dissertation on the work of the late Rabbi Dr. John D Rayner. Lea’s fierce intellect, drawn from the rivers of progressive Torah, will make her an outstanding rabbi for no less than this congregation in which we stand today.
Winding brooks, aloes, cedars – a garden well cultivated by the Leo Baeck College. We, their teachers and now, too, their colleagues, enjoin them to feed their souls and their intellects as they move on to tend the gardens that are our communities, here in the UK and across Europe. As Candide himself said, ‘All that is very well, but let us cultivate our garden.’ Voltaire’s exhortation has never been more important and rarely has it been in more capable hands than these to be carried out.
Rabbi Deborah Kahn-Harris
1 July 2012
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.