Dancing Between Love and Respect

Illustration by Kurt Hoffman

The Tishrei moon was waning as we celebrated Simchat Torah last Thursday night at New Orleans’ Beth Israel Synagogue. As I nibbled on salmon salad (in my experience, an AVODAH alum will never say no to free food), I was filled with a sense of contentment and community. Not only was I surrounded by a whirl of New Orleans natives, but I was also there with Corps members from all 3 years that AVODAH has been in the Big Easy. We visibly swelled the ranks of the dancers, and, more often than not, there was at least one Torah cradled in the arms of an AVODAH alum.

Watching the dancing, I was struck by how unusual Simchat Torah is. The holiday celebrates the conclusion of an annual cycle of public Torah readings; twice during the 25-hour period, the scrolls are removed from a synagogue’s ark and promenaded in a series of 7 hakafot (circuits) around the synagogue. As ‘People of the Book’, Jews typically treat holy texts with reverence and respect, to the point that if a congregant even witnesses a Torah being dropped, she or he is required to fast for 40 days. And yet, we’re also commanded to wholeheartedly embrace this holy day – a day in which all community members are encouraged to take the Torah in their arms and dance about, singing and sweating. On Simchat Torah, we seem to eliminate some of the Torah’s mystery; we dance with the scrolls as though clutching a beloved, boisterous child.

This phenomenon of telescoping reverence reminded me of something I’ve been struggling with since beginning work in the social justice field. Over the past 2 years, I’ve encountered many social workers and case managers – those often-under-recognized and under-appreciated people who make caring a full-time profession. I’m often amazed by how these workers can be so committed to their clients and treat them with such respect. I worry sometimes, however, that there’s a type of reverence can be distancing. It’s easy for us middle class folks to treat ‘the underprivileged’ with a measure of caution that borders on objectification. Sometimes we act as though struggles imbue our clients and patients with an unbreachable otherness, and we hesitate to question their actions and motivations, feeling that we can’t understand what they’ve suffered and therefore must remain silent.

Respecting the populations that we work with – and the individuals within those populations – is absolutely vital. But it’s also important to recognize that beyond respect and reverence, we humanize our clients when we choose not to regard their hurts as untouchable. In celebrating their victories, in asking about what they’ve lived through, in engaging them as human beings who are accountable for their actions, we can help create people out of mere clients. We also, at the same time, further humanize ourselves.

As with most jobs that require empathy, it’s a situation that’s potentially fraught: how do we maintain a professional relationship while honoring our clients as real people? I don’t have an easy answer to this question, but maybe we can learn how to gracefully navigate between love and respect by looking to one of Judaism’s most boisterous holy days.

The name ‘Simchat Torah’ can be translated in 2 ways: ‘rejoicing with the Torah’, or ‘rejoicing of the Torah’. The first translation evokes the idea of mutual celebration, while the second asks us to take a more objective stance as we honor the existence of the holy book that makes us who we are as Jews. If we can learn to bring this balance into our work – to simultaneously celebrate with the individual while also celebrating their distinct individuality – we can continue to help forge communities of sharing and strength.

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