When this pandemic began it was winter. You may remember it snowing while we were Safer At Home. Winter eventually gave way to spring, as it does, and life bloomed bright while we remained in quarantine. As the months rolled by, the heat quickly picked up and summer kicked into high gear. And now, with Coronavirus still present as ever, fall is here. Our days are getting shorter while the golden hued sunlight mimics the bashful change of leaves.
On the Jewish calendar, these subtle changes in light and leaf mean that the High Holidays are just around the corner. Today we find ourselves squarely in the Jewish month of Elul, a month of introspection and penitence that leads up to Rosh HaShanah. We know that this period is one of intensity and spiritual work. We’re reminded of that each day of Elul, when the shofar (ram’s horn) is blown. We know it’s a time of teshuvah (return) and selichot (repentance), illustrated by the cheshbon ha’nefesh (soul accounting) that we’re instructed to do all month. And many of us attend religious services (virtually, of course, this year) more in the weeks ahead than we do the rest of the year combined.
And yet, if we’re only experiencing this period as solemn and heavy and hard, we’re missing something. As Hazon’s Executive Vice President Shuli Karkowsky beautifully wrote last week, this time is also about joy. And perhaps not just any kind of joy, but the joy of love and mutuality.
Since the days of the Talmud (approximately 200-500 CE) the month of Elul has been connected to a line from Song of Songs (6:3) that says: Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li – I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me. How come? Well, the first letter from each of the words in that phrase form a Hebrew acronym that spells Elul (אֲנִ֤י לְדוֹדִי֙ וְדוֹדִ֣י לִ֔י = אֱלוּל).
What does “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me” have to do with Elul? Well, first off, this is a time for us to deepen our love and connection to the Divine. How am I allowing Divine goodness to manifest in the world? In what ways might I be blocking that flow? But it also has to do with how to treat one another. How have I treated my fellow, my neighbor, my friend? In what ways could I be more kind and generous and compassionate to those around me? And maybe most connected to the work of Hazon, it asks us to consider the mutuality of those relationships and how we are all implicitly responsible for each other. I am to my beloved. We are connected. I am responsible. And my beloved is to me. There is no separation. You are responsible to me. If I am hungry, my beloved feels those pangs. If my neighbor is hurting, it hurts me, too.
Elul comes to remind us that we are all part of the fabric of humanity and the more-than-human world. It urges us to take seriously that we are part of a single system that benefits from our common grace and suffers from our collective callousness. That until we are all free, none of us are free. That my liberation is bound up in your liberation and that I am positively impacted by positively impacting those around me. That we truly are better together.
This is a guiding principle for our work at Hazon Detroit. It’s what prompted us to launch our Relief Garden Initiative this summer, delivering compost and soil to over 400 people to grow food for those most food insecure. And it’s why we’re launching another fall round of “grow kits” that are available now in limited quantities (sign up here). It is what inspires our daily food rescue work and motivates us to keep going, even after rescuing more than 65 tons of food in the last couple months. And it’s what made us absolutely convinced that we needed to find an alternative to our annual Food Festival this year, that would be safe, accessible, good for the environment, good for the local economy, and most importantly, would help our long-standing food entrepreneur partners during an especially difficult time for small businesses.
I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me is a clear and direct call for mutuality, for mutual-aid. It’s a recognition that the real work of teshuvah (return) and the real possibility for freedom comes from the steadfast belief that we owe it to ourselves and to each other to see each other as beloved and to act accordingly. Dr. King called it a “beloved community” for a reason.
Now into month six of this pandemic, we have learned many things. But perhaps none more important than the need for love, for care, and for seeing it as our responsibility to take care of one another. Thank you for helping us do that, and thank you for being part of this precious work.
In loving community,
Rabbi Nate, Wren, Marla, Brittany, and Hannah