Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso is the Director of Religion, Spirituality and the Arts initiative at Indiana University-Purdue University, as well as Rabbi Emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis. From Adam and Eve's First Sunset to Creation's First Light, she specializes in creation stories written for children. Her collaborations with Vanderbilt Divinity School professor Amy-Jill Levine — like The Marvelous Mustard Seed — bring us allegories about cooperation and spiritual growth.
In their latest book, vibrantly illustrated by Annie Bowler, Sasso and Levine touch on a very big problem indeed: our inability to get along with each other. Given the beautiful big garden God created at the beginning of time, you would think that all creatures would naturally share and be grateful. But no: Land asserts that it was created first and deserves God's love most. Rain argues that Land would be just dusty dirt without its refreshment. Earthworms proclaim that without their turning of the earth, rain just washes away.
This kind of bickering continues with Plants and Sun, Birds and Elephants, Cheetahs and Rabbits. They engage in steady variations on a chorus of "It's not fair! God should love us most!" Even the children announce that without them, no one will care for the garden. So of course they must be the most deserving.
So how does God handle all this discord? You will be happy to hear that God starts by listening and smiling. When words come, they are ones of reassurance and cosmos-scale care. They are met with rejoicing, then peace, so that the book winds down with pictures of sleepy animals and children, making it appropriate for bedtime reading.
Sasso and Levine offer a note to parents and educators at the end. They explain that their legend follows the rabbinic literary form of midrash, which fills in the spaces of scripture ("Why did Cain kill Abel?" "How did Noah's wife respond to news of the flood?"). Midrash stories do not require a "right" answer, any more than there is a "right" answer to a symphony.
In this same spirit of creativity, the authors suggest many ideas for interactive engagement with the story, which was written for five and six year olds. These include word play, exploration of our variety of talents, and the intriguing question of what you would do if this were your garden.