Mr. Feldman (his real name) was one of my most important and memorable elementary school teachers. He taught me self-confidence, to respect my own vision, and the importance of planning ahead. Mr. Feldman did not work in a classroom: once a week after school in second and third grade, he ran a woodworking class for me and a dozen other kids.
I thought of him this week looking over our parasha of Tetzaveh and thinking about a comment a dentist friend made over kiddush, as he wondered how the people of Israel were able to learn the complicated jewelry cutting and setting techniques that they needed to create some of the bigdei kehuna, the priestly clothing. My friend knew what it took to enamel or fill a tooth, and was impressed that the people were able to set up a metalworking shop in the desert (I guess it was next to the carpentry shop for the atzei shittim, the acacia wood, and the weaving looms for the yeri’ot, the tapestries).
The Torah tells us that the chochmei lev, the “wise in heart” would construct the mishkan. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin in his Ha’emek Davar points out that we usually think of wisdom residing in the head, not the heart. Moshe needed people who were yir’ei Hashem, God fearing, not merely those who were artistically gifted. This is what master furniture maker Peter Korn, Executive Director of the Center for Furnitutre Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine describes in his fascinating book Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman (David R. Godine, 2013), when he writes of the “empowering revelation” that occurs when his students perform a “miracle of creation” building their own designs. He calls these moments “such a generous source of fulfillment, beyond the pleasure of engaging heart, head and hand in unison.” Indeed, one of the reasons that the mishkan is the source for the type of work that is prohibited on Shabbat, what the Rabbis call milechet machshevet, “creative work,” is that it unites the heart, hand and heart — and on Shabbat, we recall that the source of true creation lies with Hashem.
It’s vitally important for our kids at some point in their formative years to explore creating something with their hands, if only to start connecting their heads, hands and hearts — and even to become chochmei lev. Mr. Feldman taught us how to hold a hammer, how to wear goggles, how to respect a table saw and drill press, how to love the smell of fresh sawdust and how to bring a project from pencil sketch to three dimensional wood and nails; he let us experience that “generous source of fulfillment” which Korn lovingly describes. Some kids are carpenters. Some may be potters, painters, or even Lego robot-builders. The key is that they create something with their hands that they first envision in their heads, hopefully accessing their hearts along the way as well.
One final plug for encouraging our kids to attempt such work (but not on Shabbat) is the opportunity to create moments of what author Cal Newport calls “deep work,” which allows our brains to fully appreciate and embrace the projects that we take on. Newport urges us to “work deeply,” to take breaks from social media (which Shabbat builds in for us) and to “embrace boredom” — and not seek stimuli the minute we are bored, lest our brain “build a Pavlovian connection between boredom and stimuli, which means that when it comes time to think deeply about something… [our brains] won’t tolerate it.”
The moral of the story: less time on screens, more time doing things.