Work That is Real

Last week I had the opportunity to revisit one of the most transformative learning experiences I had as a rabbinical student.

It came after my friend and mentor Barbara Dragul invited me to present to the second-year rabbinical students she teaches. Their class is a required education seminar at the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR, which I took five years ago as a student rabbi with different instructors. Participating in the class let me revisit a campus I love––as well as the feeling I remember vividly from my own experience as a second-year student: simultaneously overconfident and overwhelmed.

It was the topic of the presentation, though, that gave me the biggest delight: the Wise Temple Torah Curriculum (WTTC).

Durning my last year of rabbinical school, and also at Barbara’s invitation, I became a co-creator WTTC. This curriculum was inspired by anniversary celebrations at Isaac M. Wise Temple (the congregation where both grew up and and served later as a rabbinic intern), which were accompanied by a project to create two new Torah scrolls for use in the community. WTTC began as an effort to help students and families in the religious school increase their connection to and knowledge of Torah, at every age and stage. My role, along with Barbara (who was at that time Wise’s Director of Education and Lifelong Learning) and other partners, was to lead its development and implementation.

The first word (b’reishit) scribed in Wise Temple’s new Torah scroll. The scribe then wrote the rest of the Torah, with the congregation, and at the culminating ceremonies filled in this first word to make it solid letters. I loved the openness that the empty b’reishit (“at the beginning…”) symbolized, so I took this picture. It now hangs on the wall of my office.

Preparing for my presentation on WTTC required me to recall the challenges and lessons I uncovered during my WTTC work. I loved that work because it enabled me to reflect on my own relationship with Torah (pretty important for a budding rabbi!), to dream up new educational experiences, and to watch others discover new understandings of Torah.

It was also real work. And communicating that feature to the second-year rabbinical students––that you don’t have to wait until after being ordained as a rabbi to do real, meaningful, impactful work––that was one of Barbara’s main goals for my presentation. I’m grateful to have had the reminder of that myself.

I remember the milestones in the WTTC process that gave me feelings of accomplishment: presenting a complete curricular overview, watching teachers and students light up with new learnings, drawing lessons from things that didn’t go as hoped, and leaving behind a project that had taken on its own life. It was the kind of thing that makes me want to do more.

Having creative work is important; Viktor Frankl teaches in Man’s Search for Meaning that creating a work or deed is one way a person senses meaning in their life. So obvious is this point, he says, that it needs no further elaboration.

Educational philosopher John Dewey wrote (in a work I first encountered in that second-year education seminar) that preparation for the future should not come at the cost of sacrificing a meaningful present:

The ideal of using the present simply to get ready for the future contradicts itself. It omits, even shuts out, the very conditions by which a person can be prepared for his future. We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything.

Experience and Education, p. 49

The whole point is to do the work now, in order to do it again more expansively later.

It’s not to say that every aspect of every project is itself meaningful. I find it hard to imagine, for example, that I’ll ever find logistics energizing. However, reminding myself of the overall purpose––real, creative work––makes it all more palatable.

It’s a kind of spiritual practice, and spiritual practice is, by its very nature, both preparatory and immediately significant at once.

[The] relation of the present and the future is not an Either-Or affair.

John Dewey, Experience and Education, pp. 49-50

Revisiting WTTC helped me rediscover just how formative an experience it was for me, according to both Frankl and Dewey’s frameworks. It revealed what I love to do, what gives me energy; it inspired and prepared me to do more. And revisiting it also encourages me to apply that frame to more of what I do, as well as to expand, as another advisor recently suggested to me, the range of what I can call spiritual practice.

All this reminded me of a favorite poem by Marge Piercy. I’ll give her the last word now, because her verses capture so stirringly the drudgery and the generosity of meaningful work––and the beauty of it, too.

To be of use
by Marge Piercy (The Art of Blessing the Day, pp. 73-74)

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were meant to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

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