The Quality of Life Wheel: A Tool for Reading, Understanding and Living
In the field of Tanakh study, students learn translation, interpretation, forming and articulating arguments, writing, and in the best cases, problem-solving, cooperation, and application of creativity. Indeed, these skills make better students. They make more articulate meaning-makers. They enrich students’ intellects. Several years ago, I began to wonder if there were also some skills that students could learn from Tanakh that could help them understand their lives better. Could Tanakh help them chart healthy pathways through life? Make them more compassionate, more helpful, more able to understand the ways life can bring us down and more able to restore quality to life when it gets difficult?
With these questions in mind, I developed a tool which I call the Quality of Life Wheel. It is designed to help students analyze and understand a wide range of subjects. At the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, 10th Grade Tanakh II uses it to understand text, Jewish history, and our own lives.
An Overview: MMMMCCCC
To begin with, look at the Quality of Life Wheel (QOL). You will notice that it is divided into eight wedges, each labeled with the name of a quality, and a few brief notes to explain the quality. Underneath is a chart to help explain each.
The Mishkan: A Quality of Life Sanctuary
Three decorative motifs point to qualities central to the text. Gold is a prominent building material in the Mishkan, and as Rafael Kushick (a furniture designer) teaches in G-dcast Parashat Teruma, the Mishkan features brass in the exterior courtyard, silver in the curtained passageway, and gold on the interior. This suggests that the most Meaningful things in the Israelites’ lives are found in the innermost recesses of the Tabernacle.
The Ark of the Covenant, made of gold, contains the Law, and it is crowned with two Faces—the cherubim, posing face-to-face. Connection, bein adam leMakom / bein adam lechaveiro, is our most sacred value, so much so that it must be regulated and guided by the Law, so much so that God “speaks” from the eye-to-eye region between two angelic (and yet human) faces.
The Mishkan is designed for portability. The furnishings feature poles that are never to be removed; the Mishkan is always, as it were, ready to be moved. This teaches that movement, adaptation, growth, and change—Creativity—is essential to the Israelites ability to survive and thrive.
Other qualities inhere in the form and function of the Mishkan.
Control: Not every space in the Mishkan is free and open at every time. Some areas are sacrosanct, for the high priest alone, on one day of the year. Likewise, the Law dictates the mitzvot, which set controls in place for a civil society.
Memory: The Ark contains the broken tablets, smashed by Moses after the Golden Calf incident, as well as the new tablets, and a jar of manna, suggesting that both difficult and inspiring elements of the past must be borne along with us, throughout life. In the synagogue, the Ark and Torah reading are symbols of Continuity, as each new generation experiences the Meaning anew, forming Connections with the past, with one’s family, from generation to generation, and with the Mystery beyond and within.
Student Assessment I: A Personal Mishkan
Part of the Meaning of the Mishkan for Jewish civilization has to do with the motifs and messages within: Gold, Portability, and Faces, as discussed above. But much of the Meaning of the Mishkan has also to do with Jewish civilization’s Creativity in the face of the destruction (dis-Continuity) of the Temple (itself, a Continuity-adaptation of the original Tabernacle).
The rise of verbal prayer, the emphasis on tzedakah, Torah study, and a large number of our most cherished mitzvot and customs are Creative-Continuities, and the embodiment of the Mishkan Motif of Portability—Creative adaptability.
But in order for students to appreciate the Creative-Continuity following the destruction of the Temple, they need to appreciate the destruction. And while students may intellectually understand the loss of the Temple by studying it, there is no avenue towards emotionally relating to the trauma of the loss of the Temple, nor the relief and joy of the Creative-Continuity that follows, without emotionally entering into the Mishkan. Just as the seder has us imagine ourselves as if we left Egypt, ourselves, I let students imagine the loss of the Mishkan as their own loss. They designed a personalized Miskan, reflected on its loss, and celebrated the joy of moving beyond the destruction.
Students use Homestyler to design a “Mishkan” that includes rooms for fostering a healthy, quality life, and they present these personal Mishkanot to the class. An example can be seen at tinyurl.com/bshyz4n.
Student Assessment II: Intervention for Trauma
Using the QOL, students learn a bit of social psychology, reflecting on how communities suffer collectively, anticipating which areas of society can suffer trauma, and in turn, anticipating what sorts of interventions can help a community get back on its feet.
In turn, students gain a deeper appreciation for Jewish history, understanding, for example, 5th century BCE Judeans as more than victims of Babylonian destruction, and Jews during WWII as more than victims of Nazi persecution. They were both creative, adaptable people faced with a terrible task: to rebuild their QOL after enormous trauma.
How is Meaning to be restored in the face of such tragedy? What is the purpose of life when all appears lost? How will the Jewish people maintain Continuity in the wake of such upheaval? Will societies in exile manage to rebuild Connection with the homeland, with each other, and with their God (the Mystery)? What role must Creativity and Mastery play as communities reform around new ways of relating to the tragedies of the past (Memory) and the challenges of today?
The Quality of Life Wheel helps students develop an eye for understanding and “reading” the world around them, relating to classic Jewish text, modern history, current events, and personal experience as overlapping fields that inform each other. The curriculum is not just about what is on the page, but also about what is within people. The skills are not just for school—the skills are for life.♦
M. Evan Wolkenstein is the director of experiential education at the JCHS of the Bay in San Francisco. He can be reached at email@example.com.