Since Eden, gardens have represented a most tranquil place in which we may find solace and wellbeing despite the conflicting currents of thought and action in the world about us. We plant them, the work of our own hands, creating on a modest scale the bliss and harmony of a lost chance at perfection. We visit them, the carefully crafted botanical gardens that grace many of our larger communities as an extension of our own dreams for peace and solidarity.
Some gardens are truly unique, touching on the divine purpose of their ancient ancestor. One such place is the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, which is part of the Yad Vashem museum complex in Jerusalem. The museum is a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, its name derived from the Hebrew text of the Prophet Isaiah’s promise to eunuchs, those who had been mutilated in service to their masters and denied the privilege of generating new life, that they would one day know an abiding peace in the eternal presence of a just God.
We have similar museums and memorials in this country, even though they may not represent the scope of the horrific nightmare inflicted upon the Hebrew people living in Europe during the Nazi ascendency. The National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City and the Oklahoma City National Memorial are prime examples of our attempts at paying permanent tribute to the innocents, who died as a result of the same type of sinister mentality that troubled Europe when a conclave of hate was in session. Bricks and mortar, concrete and stone, such places rightfully honor the dead with the intent of showing the events to be so repugnant that such things will never happen again, even though they do.
The Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations represents something else, however. It was designed to honor those non-Jews who during the Holocaust risked their lives to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis. The Garden, itself a living monument, honors the living, who gave the precious gift of life to those who were powerless against the superman onslaught of what we now politely call ethnic cleansing. The Garden exemplifies something equally important for us to sustain in our collective memory in the way the Museum reminds us of the destructive nature of genocide and that is how to live and preserve life so that others may live and enjoy the same peace and security that we desire for ourselves.
The passage from which Yad Vashem draws its name is a truly inspired choice for the larger context in what the prophet of God proclaimed for all to hear includes a promise to non-Jews, foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations. The Sovereign Lord declares – he who gathers the exiles of Israel; I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered (Isaiah 56:6-8 New International Version). Appropriately, Yad Vashem is located on the western slope of Mount Herzl, reflecting God’s promise to bring all who keep his covenant to his holy mountain.
Part of the Museum complex is the Avenue of the Righteous. It was created on bare Mount Herzl on May 1, 1962 with the planting of eleven trees along the path leading to the Hall of Remembrance. Each tree was planted by the rescuer it honored in company with the Jews they rescued during the Holocaust. At the Avenue’s dedication, then Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir likened their efforts to drops of love in an ocean of poison. This living tribute to compassion’s persistent proclamation of human dignity has been supplemented over the years as more rescuers have been acknowledged by the designation of being Righteous, with more trees planted and more emphasis placed on what it means to be good. Just such a Garden and just such an Avenue is what America needs right now as hate has once again taken center stage in the way we govern and in the way we protest such governance.
We have ample space for establishing a garden of major proportions with avenues aplenty along which we may walk and reflect on virtue and beauty. We have more than enough talented architects of nature, who can craft a perpetually growing sanctuary. And no doubt there is a place in the heartland where a stream runs through undeveloped property, living water as opposed to a concrete pond, where the charm of Eden can once again be established in praise of a righteous cause. The trouble for us will be in deciding who are the righteous among us today? Our tendency towards worshipping at the altar of celebrity would make it likely that any selection committee would default to those who already have their halls of fame for keeping us entertained. The beauty of the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations is that it honors ordinary people who did extraordinary things at great personal risk.
Since I lack the means of constructing this garden and these avenues of which I can only dream, perhaps I must be content to await the fulfillment of another prophecy, this one made by the Apostle John, a Jew, who was a proponent of the Way. While imprisoned by a ruthless empire whose power the Nazis could only envy, he saw a New Jerusalem established on the earth in a future where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain; no more barbed wire, gas chambers and human-fed furnaces or museums, which memorialize their infamy.
Instead, what John saw in the midst of the city were the elements of a garden reminiscent of the Eden, where we began. Of this vision he wrote, Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:1-2 New International Version).