Four Went into the Garden (Justin Lewis)

This text honoring the four mothers as gardeners of the Tree of Life echoes a mysterious Talmudic text:

"Four went into the garden--ben Azzai, ben Zoma, Elisha ben Avuya, and Rabbi Akiva.... Ben Azzai looked and died, and of him it is said, "Precious in God's eyes is the death of his faithful." Ben Zoma looked and was stricken [with madness]. Of him it is said: "Have you found honey? Eat what is enough for you, lest you become too full and vomit." Elisha ben Avuya cut the shoots [became a heretic]. Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace." (Babylonian Talmud, Chagiga 14b)

The garden is said to represent study of Torah, and/or profound mystical experience. Three of the men who entered died, went insane, or denied the existence of God. Of the four sages who entered this dangerous realm of inquiry, only one, the most, learned, epxerienced, and aware, emerged unscathed. This suggests that experience of the sacred can lead us to painful places as well as ecstatic ones. We need courage and sense in otder to interpret mystical revelation with integrity.

This imagined text places the four wives of Jacob in the same mystical garden but envisions a different outcome, in which each woman is able to nurture and tend the garden of the sacred in some way.

"Four went into the garden: Rachel, Bilhah, Zilpah and Leah. Rachel entered and remained. Bilhah opened doors. Zilpah nurtured the roots. Leah entered, gathered, and brought out for the world."

Of Rachel it is said: "Vatishaer ha'isha—The woman entered and remained." (Ruth 1:5)

Of Bilhah it is said: "Dlatai laorach eftach—I will open my doors to the path."

Of Zilpah it is said: "Vatashresh shorasheha vatimaleh aretz—She rooted Her roots and filled the land." (Psalms 80:10)

Of Leah it is said: "Veasafta et tevuatah—And you shall gather in Her produce." (Ex. 23:10, Lev. 25:3)

Like its talmudic counterpart, this text hints at some dangers as well as some benefits. Rachel (the matriarch who died in childbirth), remains in the garden rather than leaving it in order to bring what she has learned to the world. Bilhah opens doors; that is, she opens up her mind to what she may discover, and perhaps finds a new and strange reality. Zilpah, unlike her counterpart Elisha ben Avuya, does not "uproot the shoots" (pull up any connection to the tree of life), but rather roots new things. Rooting new shoots, like uprooting shoots, is a way of introducing change to the garden of the tradition. And Leah, like Akiva, is able to harvest her experience and teach it to others.

This creative text, or its talmudic counterpart above, can be used to invoke the four directions of north, east, south, and west, or the four worlds (atzilut/spirit, em>beriyah/mind, yetzirah, and assiyah/doing), or the two texts can be studied together as a way of thinking about the benefits and dangers of mystical experience.

Rabbi Justin Lewis is leader of Congergation Iyr haMelekh and head of the Jewish Studies department of Queens University, as well as a scholar of Chassidic storytelling, and is the author of the "Four Went into the Garden" text. The commentary was written by Rabbi Jill Hammer, poet, author, and founder of Tel Shemesh.

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