For the past two weeks, Giulia and I have been living and working in a unique community called Sadhana Forest (http://sadhanaforest.org/). Started by an Israeli couple eight years ago, its mission is to reforest 70 acres of severely eroded land. It now attracts over 1,000 volunteers each year who pour their time and effort into this project. For us, it was unlike anything we had experienced in our lives, and provided much opportunity for reflection.

While working in the forest last week, my hands covered in dirt and sweat dripping from my forehead, I reflected about how easy it is to destroy something and how difficult it is to bring it back. It has taken the combined efforts of thousands of people giving months or even years of their lives, along with thousands of dollars in infrastructure and material cost, to begin restoring a small plot of land where it likely took no more than a few days to fell all the trees that had been growing there (as I mentioned in a previous post, this was done in colonial times, with the result of turning a once lush forest into an arid, barren moonscape). In humanity’s greed, haste, and ignorance, we squandered 20 million years of topsoil in a fraction of a second.

I realized that this same principle holds true in other areas of life as well. For instance, we can do irreparable harm in our relationships with others (lovers, parents, or friends) with a split-second loss of judgment that may lead us to act or speak in a harmful way. Soil, like trust, take a long time to build, and can be destroyed with a single instant of carelessness. The other person, like the land we were working, may not be so forgiving. In both cases, if we hope to repair what we have broken, we will likely have to put in the same type of reassuring, nurturing care. If we’re lucky, diligent effort may result in revitilizing what once looked barren and lifeless.

The arid earth or the broken relationship both testify to the indispensability of foresight and reflection. We generally spend so little time anticipating the outcomes of our actions and so much time cleaning up their foreseeable consequences. Using any measure we choose (health, efficiency, etc.), this approach of cleaning up the mess afterword is absurd. But this seems to be part of our human character, indicating that we are a species capable of looking into the future, but generally unwilling to alter our actions when they conflict with perceived short-term gain. We all know (at least in theory) that a world with healthy forests and loving relationships is preferable to one without. And yet, we can’t stop ourselves from destroying what we love most, only to repent and try and to love  again.

When we try to rebuild, we find ourselves groping along unkown walls, almost clueless as to how to proceed. For example, at Sadhana Forest, we planted all the species we knew were in the forest before, but our attempt will necessarily be an approximation of the perfection nature had previously achieved. We really have no idea how to space them, or which varieties were present alongside others in the original forest, or which species went completely extinct. We can just mix up the trees we do have and hope they’ll get along when they grow up. Similarly, when we see to assuage someone we’ve hurt, we really don’t know how to do it, and find ourselves longing for the time when trust was naturally there.

This shouldn’t dissuade us from trying, though. It is much better to have the intention to repair, even if the knowledge of how to do it is lacking, than it is to abandon the scene. After you spill the milk, don’t just leave it there! The hardest part can be sustaining the will and resisting the temptation to cave into nostalgic revery at what had been so beautiful.

Repairing what we have broken- what in the Jewish tradition is called tikkun olam– can even be an opportunity to practice compassion. Most of the time, we kill what we love out of simple ignorance. Understanding this can encourage us to regret the mistake without being consumed by guilt for it. In time, we might even come to feel grateful for our missteps, for it’s only be confronting the undesirable consequences of our actions that we can resolve never to repeat the same errors in judgment. If we do succeed in restoration, what results will be a reflection of a higher state of awareness, and can serve as a living reminder of the new values we wish to embody- one that can now reproduce itself into the future.

Sadhana Forest is a living expression of the power of love. Aviram and Yurit (the couple who founded it) have created an incredible place where anyone can come to put their energies into something constructive instead of destructive, and use this opportunity to reflect on what kind of life we want to lead. Working the forest provided us not only with the chance to get our hands dirty and treat the land with respect, but we leave from this place inspired with the knowledge that all it takes is a bit of vision, trust, and hard work to create something truly beautiful. As the back of the Sadhana Forest t-shirts says, “May there be more forests to grow people.”