Deciphering Life’s Poetry

I was encouraged to create a website for myself as I apply for rabbinical jobs in anticipation of ordination so that perspective congregations can learn more about me and the work that I have done. As I explored my online presence, searching for links that I could place on the website that would show a bit more of who I am, I found a video of the speech that I gave at my college graduation almost five years ago. As I listened to the speech, I realized that my attempt to reflect on the totality of my undergraduate experience is entirely relevant to my experience in service-learning as well.

I viewed my undergraduate experience through a speech that I heard many times from my favorite professor in college, Professor Gilead Morahg. Professor Morahg taught Hebrew literature, and in each of the three semesters that I studied with him, we spent one unit on Hebrew poetry. Students typically loathed the poetry unit because of the difficulty of the language, but Professor Morahg framed it with the same speech every semester. The value of poetry, he would tell us, lies in the fact that it is often very difficult to understand the meaning of a poem. To decipher a poem is an immersive experience wherein one must dissect every word, line, and stanza. True learning, Professor Morahg would tell us, comes from experience, and thus we stand to learn much from the experience of reading poetry.

As I prepare to do some reflecting on my tenure as a rabbinical student, much like I did five years ago as an undergraduate, I am still struck by my teacher’s words. The past three semesters of service-learning have been, for me, like deciphering a poem. At times, I have had no idea what the poet meant, and I have been frustrated by my inability to figure it out. At other times, I have made connections and learned lessons that the “poet” never intended. It is at times tempting to get stuck on one word of the poem or one detail of the service learning experience and to miss the big picture, and it is similarly possible to reflect too broadly on the big picture and miss the beauty and significance of individual words, experiences, or interactions. Often the meaning of a poem does not become clear to me until weeks, months, or years after I first read it, or until I’ve read if a few more times. Similarly, some of the lessons that I have learned from service-learning have only become clear to me long after the experience itself, and will presumably hold more value as I continue to reflect in the months to come.

Josh Herman

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