The Torah of Care

by Ayana Morse, Executive Director

It’s not uncommon in meetings on Team SVARA for someone to say at some point, “There are no Talmud emergencies.” Usually, it’s in reference to shifting timelines for a project or to ease away from imagined urgency. It tends to bring about a good chuckle. But just as underneath that phrase is the practice of restoration and care that we’ve all come to expect and cherish in the SVARA bet midrash, it is also something that we’re working hard to embed in our workflow behind the scenes. 

Restoration and, even more so, wellness, are catchy buzzwords in work culture these days, thrown around to push against the fatigue and exhaustion that come from navigating the ever-changing nature of a global pandemic. And it’s on our minds in the Jewish community this year, as we move through shmita (the sabbatical year) and try to understand how the notion of letting the land rest might apply to our work and lives. On a personal level, wellness these days can mean anything from spending time in nature to embarking on a meditation practice. And on an organizational level, it might mean expanding remote work practices or closing the office for extended periods of time to enable folks to catch their breath. And we all need that breath. 

The idea of slowing down isn’t new or particularly unique to the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic. However, as there’s been a general shift back towards a sense of business as usual, it feels important to keep shining a light on the power of self-care. The Nap Ministry, an incredible project centering rest as a resistance practice towards the pursuit of liberation, framed the challenge of this shift and their vision for a better future: “I am sick of rushing and the obsession with opening back up and getting back to normal. I never want to see normal or the way it was again. It is time for a new way. Rest and slowing down will be the foundation for this liberated future that many are screaming about online via memes, in the streets during the uprisings for Black Lives and in our hearts.” For anyone whose lives and wellness are most at risk under the hustle-focused culture we inhabit, the liberatory work of slowing down is known to be necessary in order to do the work ahead. This thinking has helped to push us to interrogate white supremacy within SVARA’s organizational culture, and as we do this, the idea of false urgency, and the way it interacts with perfectionism, have risen up as areas we want to keep working on. 

We know that in order to show up for ourselves, for each other, and for our students we need to feel grounded and whole. And we know that cultivating wholeness is counter to the ways systems and processes are typically structured. In the bet midrash, when a student is reciting a text they’ve learned, the intention is clear that they should take as much space as they need to call it up in its entirety. The process is slow but supported, and when the student reaches the end of their text they are clapped up with incredible enthusiasm by the entire bet midrash. This explicit celebration of process and the way time expands to hold it, is one that we’ve been actively bringing into our work practices in lots of different ways.

We learn so much about care, affirmation, and presence through our time together in the bet midrash. Our journey of late has been to embody a sense of tocho ke’varo (inside translation: “inside his like outside his”), an alignment between, in this case, our learning spaces and our internal systems and practices. In the gemara, Raban Gamliel (Berakhot 28a) introduces the idea of tocho ke’varo as the highest standard of integrity, suggesting that only people who are tocho ke’varo should be granted entry to the bet midrash. While Rabban Gamliel’s use of this idea is exclusionary, designed to limit who has access to the tradition, other commentators use this principle to highlight the importance of living out our expressed commitments and living with integrity. The Rambam, for example, sees this as a principle for aligning our internal thinking with the ideas and actions we beam out in the world. He explains: “tocho ke’varo, [the essence of this idea is that] one’s inner and outer being must be the same, for the subject of the heart is the matter of the mouth.”

One of the first steps for us in cultivating a culture of care and restoration as Team SVARA was to acknowledge where our work fits within a broader ecosystem. We understood early on in the pandemic, as we scrambled to create new learning offerings to respond to the moment, that our role is not the same as first responders—we’re not in the business of maintaining physical safety and security for our community. We also recognized that we are spiritual responders, though, and that our bet midrash is an anchoring, healing space for so many of y’all—and for us. This has been reflected back to us by our learners time and again, as one of you so eloquently shared, Studying Talmud through SVARA feels like a tangible way to love myself.” 

And we know that in order to create the space for that love to flourish, in order to show up as teachers, leaders, organizers, and spirit boosters, we need to take care of ourselves, too. We need to ensure that our systems and practices are structured in a way that supports us in that work. For us that means expanding our policies around time out of the office, it means encouraging and celebrating vacations, and it means that sometimes napping is the most important thing on our schedules. It means blocking time without meetings and taking space to read, write, and learn so our spirits are nourished. And it means taking timelines and deadlines seriously while also “holding them lightly” as we prioritize real life when it inevitably interrupts and surprises us. 

The practice of self-care is one worth prioritizing, whether you have agency to prioritize that for yourself or for others. For marginalized people, this is a radical act. Like all work, the cultivation of care and restoration is ongoing. It’s a muscle that needs constant attention and nourishment in order to grow and strengthen. And it’s critical that we continue this conversation even after it’s no longer trendy and the communal consciousness has turned to the next most important idea. Because in order to show up for each other, we need to have already filled ourselves up enough to be present. We need to hold the sense of tocho ke’varo, to make sure our insides match our outsides, in order to be available. To be whole. And just as we need to slow down and revisit our texts in the bet midrash in order to fully embody them and claim them as our own, we need to slow down and revisit our own needs in order to hold space and nurture each other. Not just in this shmita year. Not just in the midst of pandemic. But as a fully integrated and embodied practice, just like any other. Because when we are whole and well, the expansiveness of the future will unfold in more liberatory ways.

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