In 16th C. Italy, schools training students of sculpture, architecture and painting began instructing their students to develop progetti, scale models of their ideas. This allowed for delightful moments of creativity, expression, risk taking and learning. Without realizing it, what these schools were doing was creating one of the most powerful tools in education from that point on; progetti would come to be known as Project Based Learning (for more on this history and project based learning in general, see “Setting the Standard in Project Based Learning” by Larmer, Mergendoler and Boss).
One of the elements that makes project based learning so powerful is that it is an ideal stage for engaging in assessment, critique and revision. It is through these activities that one reflects and grows, taking ever more steps towards the mastery of their craft. It turns out that assessment, critique and revision lie at the heart of growing not just in a craft, but in our lives as well. In fact, when we think about the Jewish concept of teshuva, repentance or returning, and how it requires these same components, we start to see that in some ways, teshuva allows us to reflect on our lives as grand projects.
Given that teshuva is at the heart of all of the Jewish calendar’s communal fasts, it is in this light that a major purpose of the fast and observances of Tisha B’Av is put into sharp relief. This fast is an expression of mourning for the destruction of the ancient Jewish Temples and equally, our people’s ethical failings that led to it. It’s yearly observance interrupts our regular processes, similar to the way a project presentation does for the artisan. In both cases, one puts things on hold and lays out their project out for examination. Just as the architect or sculptor knows they will find success in some elements of their project and areas of deficiency and needed growth in others, we prepare to discover the same. Then, just as these artists receive critique by bringing to bear the principles of their discipline, we read passages of the Tanakh that bring to bear the core principles of Jewish living. What are these principles? The day’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah makes it abundantly clear, “For only in this may one glorify themselves–contemplating and knowing Me, for I am the Lord who does kindness, justice and righteousness in the land, for in these is My desire” (9:23). Using these principles as a rubric, we assess, critique, and revise the trajectory of our lives.
But the analogy of the observances of Tisha B’Av to a project presentation continues for another, crucial step. In the same way that a project presentation would be rendered useless if it did not effect how the artist approached their project thereafter, it is equally true that fasting is useless if it does not effect how one considers their life thereafter. An architect student who discovers a flaw in their approach to arches would then delve into that topic, giving it careful attention in an effort to master it. If through our fast day observances we discover an area we need to address in realm of kindness, for example, we must be committed to learning about and practicing this trait until we approach greater mastery over it as well.
This Tisha B’Av, I invite us all to look at our lives as our greatest project. In doing so, we can look closely at the elements of our life’s art that we have mastered, and those areas that require our focused study and development. This is a great time to familiarize ourselves with or revisit our tradition’s Mussar (ethics and spirituality) classics such as Tomer Devorah, Mesilat Yesharim or Sha’arei Kedushah. Books on positive psychology, character and moral philosophy are also wonderful and important resources to engage with. In many ways, these are manuals for the art of living with which we can hone our craft. With the passion and dedication of artists, we can rebuild the structures, literally and figuratively, for a better tomorrow.