Emunah and Avodah: Joining Belief and Action in Sacred Work

On the last day of his life, as the Israelites are preparing to enter the Promised Land without him, Moses offers his final teachings and directives to the Jewish people. He assures the Israelites that Torah—and the teachings and commandments contained therein—is not beyond them to uphold after he leaves them. Torah doesn’t live in the heavens and it isn’t across the sea, Moses explains. Torah survives in your mouth and heart (Deuteronomy 30:11–14).

This teaching, that Torah lives in both our mouths and hearts, is a compelling one. Ibn Ezra offers us important insight into Moses’s framing in his commentary on this passage: “The heart is the essence of all commandments, but some [commandments] involve recitation with the mouth in order to strengthen one’s heart.” Ibn Ezra seems to understand the reciprocal nature of belief and action as they play out in Torah. He explains that it is not enough to merely believe or hold our convictions within us. We must live out our beliefs; by acting and doing, we strengthen the beliefs of our heart and enhance our convictions through active response. In short, we are a people of both emunah, belief, and, critically, avodah, work or action.

Moses’s twofold approach to Jewish life, to believing and then acting on those beliefs, is typified by our Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellowship experiences. As rabbis-in-formation, we are given the opportunity to put the teachings of our tradition, our professors, and our mentors into action at our field placements. This critical marriage of theory and praxis allows us to experiment, to grow, and to work through the lessons from our classes in real time. Like Moses explains, we’re taking the Torah of our hearts and putting it into our mouths. We’re acting on our convictions and bringing them to life.

This past summer, as a rising third year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR, I was again placed at Congregation Beth Adam as their summer Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati tellow. Having spent my second-year Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati education fellowship at Beth Adam, this summer’s placement was an opportunity to continue the work I started last year. I spent this summer working on Our Village, Beth Adam’s highly creative Sunday school program. While we focused on many aspects of Our Village, I am most proud of the work we completed on the “Hallway Trails” curriculum.

“Hallway Trails” is a curriculum I designed that creates walking trails both in our school hallways and outside in the greenery and woods around our school. The goal is to help students more coherently explore the exhibits, posters, art, and interactive displays that fill our educational environment. These trails and the accompanying trail maps guide students through our walkways via themes like “social justice,” “ecology,” or “inspirational leaders.” The trails allow students to explore on their own, making their own meaning and actively engaging with the teachings of our tradition as they move in and around our space. We’ve also updated our walkways so that every piece of art—every poster, every image, every quote—is now accompanied by a museum-like write-up with information about that piece. This brings intentionality and an opportunity for deeper learning to every student, and, indeed, to whomever walks through our halls.

The wall outside our art room is covered with a quote from the rabbinic scholar Hillel. Before, students may have walked by this quote, never bothering to read it; or, if they did, it was a cursory reading that didn’t allow for lasting impressions or understandings. While the quote was attributed to Hillel, there was no explanation of who Hillel was or why his teachings matter to us today. Today, that same quote is now a stop on our “Inspirational Leaders” trail. Students are directed specifically to stop there, to read the quote and truly take it in. As they read the quote, they will notice a faux Facebook profile that I created for Hillel which includes famous quotes and biographical information. Where one could write on a Facebook wall online, I have left a blank space on the laminated Facebook profile on our wall. A dry-erase marker hangs there so students can write on Hillel’s Facebook wall, bringing reflection and interaction to what was once a static, simple quote on the wall. This trail stop has now become a dynamic place for student exploration and meaning making.

Hallway Trails reflects the ethos of Our Village. As a school, we prioritize authentic connections and student-driven exploration. We provide our learners with the tools to build meaning and understanding in their lives. We want to see the students at Our Village actively engage with their Judaism. It is the same active engagement that Moses was speaking of all those years ago. Learners at Beth Adam are asked to hold their Judaism in their hearts and mouths. This is a community where emunah and avodah come together to create a vibrant space dedicated to intentional Jewish life. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to spend two fellowship placements at Beth Adam. Continuing to enhance the beliefs of my heart through active practice, by speaking and living Torah, is at the heart of my path to the rabbinate.

Caitlin Brazner is a third-year rabbinical and education student at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, Ohio, serves as the student rabbi of Temple Israel in Paducah, Kentucky, and volunteers in the Congregation Beth Adam Sunday school program, Our Village.

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