Three stone cutters were engaged in exactly the same task—cutting stones to build a cathedral. They would take a large piece of stone, cut it into a cube, and then place the cube into a pile with all of the others. A passer-by asked each of them, “Excuse me, what are you doing?” The first looks up with a scowl on his face and barks, “Can’t you see? I take the stone, cut it, and put it in the pile over there. I’ve been doing the exact same task for the last ten years, and I probably will do this until the day I die.” After the second was asked, he paused, put down his tools and looked up with a relaxed gaze. He volunteered, “I am cutting these stones to provide for my family. I am able to put good food on the table and keep them safe in our home. When I cut these stones, I know that my family is taken care of.” Yet, after the third was asked, he looked up with a radiant smile, beaming from ear to ear. ” Ah!” he sighed, “I am building a cathedral. A spiritual home, a lighthouse, to offer hope in a time of darkness and turmoil. This cathedral will stand for thousands of years. All of my efforts are contributing to this spiritual refuge.”
We each have a choice about how we approach our work as educators, poignantly described in this Sufi parable. We might punch in and punch out, maybe even feeling somewhat sour about it—especially these days [COVID-19 pandemic], an understandable if not ideal perspective. We may feel some pride in what we do, grateful for employment and the ability to provide for our families. And maybe, sometimes, we get to the place the third worker expresses—seeing our work not just as being satisfying (a challenging enough place to get to!), but rather as part of something much bigger, a place of meaning, uplift, and holiness. I’d guess that most of us rotate between the three different outlooks—if we expect to be fulfilled in each and every moment of our professional career, our expectations are likely misaligned. Yet, if we never felt that depth of meaning at any point, we probably would have moved to a different field. Speaking for myself, those “moments of meaning” have felt more elusive over the past ten months—the back and forth of learning text can’t be captured in the same way over Zoom, nor can the electric moment of connection in building relationships in person—making the challenge of finding deep meaning that much more pressing and challenging.
It’s easy to go down an ontological rabbit hole here (“what’s the meaning of ‘meaning’?”), but it seems easier to build on from a master on the topic, the 20th century psychologist and thinker Victor Frankl. Frankl, in reflecting on his experience as a Holocaust survivor, identifies meaning as a primary, rather than a secondary, drive; just as we need food and shelter, so too do we need meaning to survive. In some ways, this seems to be radical—a seeming inversion of Maslow’s well-known hierarchy of needs—but, when I think about it for myself (and I invite you to do the same), it resonates. Even looking back at this past year, if the core components of my life through which I find meaning—my family, my personal interests and, yes, blessedly, my work—weren’t present, I don’t know how I would have made it through. I’m faced with the challenge, then, of being sameah behelki, satisfied with my portion of meaning. I’m also faced with the ultimately personal nature of this meaning—meaning is something I can generate for myself, and myself alone. No one else can tell me what it is for me.
So, how can it be found? I’ve learned from teachers and friends who are therapists that when someone is working with a psychologist, it’s not only about what’s discussed, the content, but it’s also about the process: what a person chooses to discuss first (or last), their affect as the conversation unfolds, and so on. I believe the same can be applied to an understanding of how we discover and sustain meaning. There are certain things I might do that are capital-M Meaningful and there are also the more mundane elements of my life. Though the content of meaning might be more obvious in the former, I can still mine those other experiences for meaning. The Hasidic masters knew this when they offered the framework of avodah begashmiyut, service of God in the everyday, that serving and being connected to God can happen in the unfolding of our daily lives, not only in times of formal study or prayer. I’ll offer that I think this balance of finding meaning through both content and process is true for us as individuals and works particularly well in our work as educators. Here are some examples, through my own experience of my teachers, of how this could be applied in professional contexts.
Finding Meaning Through Content
We can each think of at least an educator or two, probably more, who clearly have a deep passion for the content they teach. I can think of a Talmud teacher of mine jumping up and down as we decoded a daf, or my high school English teacher’s delight in lingering over a scene from Hamlet. You can tell when you’re learning from someone who loves the content, and it’s joyous.
Finding Meaning Through Process
This one’s a bit tricker—less about the form, more about the format. It’s not that the content is irrelevant, but it’s also that there’s a bigger picture in play. For me, this was my tech theater teacher in high school who supervised the stage crew for all the shows the school would put on. He clearly cared about the content and the quality of the work we all did together. However, more than that, I sensed how passionate he was about giving us each, as individuals, an opportunity to grow, and he provided the forum for us, as a team, to work together and create something bigger than we could have created ourselves. The process, more than any one skill or piece of information, resonated.
Finding Meaning Through Both Content And Process
I’ve been blessed to learn from a Tanakh teacher a number of times—her passion for the material, her cultivation of skills in the classroom, her encouragement of creative interpretation is obvious. Just as, if not more, notable to me is the relationship building she engages in with her students. She invites students in the class over for a Shabbat meal at some point in the year and she stays in touch after the course is complete. She e-mailed me just the other week from Jerusalem, saying that she was thinking about me since she’s seen how bad the [COVID-19] numbers are in LA. There’s the content of the course that’s meaningful and there’s the developing and deepening process of connection through which the content is transmitted and enhanced—a fully integrated experience of meaning that I in turn receive.
Now, I don’t know what the inner experience of any of these teachers was—it’s possible, though unlikely, that this is all my own projection. But I do think that meaning can be sensed, and that it’s tangible when it’s present and transmitted. In each of these cases, it’s also an active process, not just something that simply happens or is arrived at. Meaning isn’t just successfully achieved, like moving to the next level in a video game. In some ways, the construct of meaning as a noun makes things more challenging—perhaps we should consider the value of thinking of our actions as “meaning-ing,” transforming it to a verb.
I feel lucky that in my professional life thus far, I’ve had moments of each of these types of “meaning-ing.” There are times when I feel deeply connected to our tradition, such as when I’ve found a Hasidic teaching that reinterprets a verse in a way I haven’t thought of before, or I see a student master a skill that’s been challenging for them, and suddenly it comes to life. It’s instances like this, in which I feel connected to something bigger than me, and that essential moment can sustain me for any number of emails that have to get written or forms that need to be filled out.
When we search for and embody meaning, we model for our students how to do this. There’s no formula; we share it with our energy, with our passion, with our consistency, with our presence. Though meaning is ultimately personal, we can model the process through which we have discovered it for ourselves and the content that brings us life, inspiring our students to discover it for themselves. When we demonstrate how our tradition is a well-spring of this for ourselves, we increase the likelihood that they may find it there as well.
There is a teaching on the construction of the Tabernacle, that when it was completed, and all the Israelites looked at their work, it was impossible for them to differentiate who had created or built whichever piece of the final product. Whether it was building a mere socket or hammering out the gold for the covering, they were a collective unit, looking at something they had all built together (a moment we can wish for for our three stone cutters above).
I hope for a glimmer of this experience in micro and in macro, for myself and for all of us. I hope that in our most minute duties (say, making copies before a lesson) and our grandest professional moments (the lecture that ties the whole semester together), we see one unified whole, one larger structure in which we find meaning for ourselves and illuminate it for our students. And all the more so—whatever our role within the larger system of Jewish education, may we see ourselves as part of a larger system of meaning, with all of us working together in a project of holiness, spiritual growth, and love.