Today begins the Hebrew month of Elul; a month of introspection before Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year. At this time of year Jews engage in an accounting of their year to examine where they have lived up to their values, hopes and intentions, and where they have not. In the dominant culture, we make a nod to how we want to be “better” through our new year’s resolutions, but we aren’t encouraged to examine our impact on another.
What would change, if instead of saying “This year I want to start a diet,” we instead reflected and recognized “I really wasn’t very good at self-care and rest, and want to appreciate my body in more healthful ways.” Moving from guilt to compassion for self. What then, if you extended that circle, to bring compassion to how you treated a family member or friend? The waiter that served your meal? That relative who’s posts make you cringe? That homeless veteran? That person of color? What if you honored your child by using the pronouns they identify as? What do you think would change if we stopped treating the planet as a commodity but as a life force of which we are a part? Dare we look at how we treat our soil? Trees? Oceans? Air? Climate?
The name of the month, Elul, is considered an acronym for “Ani l’dodi, v’dodi li,” “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” What if we treated ourselves, our partner, our child, our neighbor, our planet as Beloved?
Are we treating our Black neighbor as beloved when we don’t hold our police accountable for acting as judge, jury & executioner? Are we treating our police officers as beloved when we deny how they were attacked during the January 6th insurrection? Are we treating our kids as beloved when we continue to not deal with gun violence and school shootings? Are we treating homeless as beloved when we send squads in to destroy their meager possessions in a “sweep”? Are we treating as beloved our parents when we refuse to wear a mask? Are we treating as beloved the animals, trees, homes, businesses, people perishing in unprecedented wildfires? And is it any wonder, then, that we are not treating as beloved the essential and healthcare workers who are on the front lines of the COVID pandemic?
Our sages (of many traditions) recognize what we seem to have forgotten. It’s not about Me, my diet, my discomfort, my politics. We only thrive when we move beyond me and mine and see the beloveds surrounding us. When we act from compassion instead of self-interest.
In this moment we are witnessing 2 (among many) wildfires, each larger than the city of Los Angeles, devouring our forests and homes. We are witnessing a “dead zone” forming in the ocean off the coast from British Columbia to California, where lack of oxygen in the water is expected to lead to significant die-off of our fish and sea life. We are witnessing the slowing of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC, the vascular system (as it were) which regulates the warming and cooling of our ocean waters and therefore climate; if it collapses so do our predictable weather systems which make agriculture even possible. Today, the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change sounded a “red alert” that can no longer deny the severity of our crisis. Meanwhile almost 100% of this fourth wave of the pandemic is being caused by people who chose not to get vaccinated or wear a mask. Billionaires are spending millions on recreational space travel rather than giving their workers a living wage or contributing to the communal safety nets.
It can no longer be denied that the avarice of the twentieth century and now the 21st, has degraded not only the planet but our sense of community. Instead of legislating women’s wombs or a trans youth’s bathroom, what if we brought compassion to bear, and created a health system which uplifts us all? Instead of complaining about the refugees at the border, what if we recognized the pain and fear that would drive a parent to walk hundreds of miles rather than risk their child’s life from drug lords and despots? What if rather than decrying “fake news” and government overreach we listened to the doctors, nurses, and grieving families begging us to inconvenience ourselves just a tiny bit by putting on a mask that will save lives? What if, instead of being outraged about the filth and stench of a homeless camp, we recognized that the lack of mental health care, affordable housing and a restorative justice system leads people to despair?
The hunger we feel for human touch, due to the isolation of the pandemic, is only a magnification of the self-imposed isolation of recent years. We have shut ourselves off from our families by gazing constantly at screens like Narcissus gazing into the mirror. We have shut ourselves off from our neighbors each time we have railed, “not in my backyard” or failed to vote on issues that didn’t affect us personally. We bemoan the divisiveness and loss of civic discourse, but we talk more about “my right” than “my responsibility” to the common good. Focus too much on preserving the status quo instead of honoring someone else’s lived experience as true and valid.
What made us “great” in the mid-20th century was that (despite the myriad ways we devalued anyone who wasn’t a cis white male), we recognized that the only way to overcome dictators and fascism was to band together across our differences, growing gardens and sacrificing resources to support and outfit the young people fighting for freedom. We inconvenienced ourselves with curfews and food rations, and yes, safety precautions and new vaccines against the polio pandemic (which was rampant at the same time we were fighting a world war). The wealthy paid their fair share so that we could not only outfit the war effort but build roads and bridges, schools and hospitals here at home. People may have only identified their church or homogenous neighborhood as community, but they recognized that the only way to grow hope, connection and spirit was through compassion for their fellow humans.
We have yet to perfect our union, and to become Beloved Community. We still fear the “Other” and judge & demonize anyone different from ourselves. We prefer to ignore the systemic oppression experienced by so many in this country, if it means we might have to address the ways we denied the truth of history and must share some of our privileges (which we don’t lose just because someone else gains). We convince ourselves that the problems are either too big or inconvenient to address, to not have to change our own unexamined way of life. Racial & gender equity are “someone else’s problem.” “Nothing can be done” about climate catastrophe.
Amid so many global and personal challenges, can I shift my gaze to one of compassion? Walk in their shoes? Tread lightly on a suffering planet? Cut myself some slack while also owning my responsibility?
Who is my beloved? Who is yours? Can we pause from our fear long enough to recognize the face of the Divine staring back at us with pleading eyes? There is a lot to fear in the world, but compassion, for self, for neighbor, for planet is the only way to heal the cumulative traumas and collective grief we swim in. If I can pause and breathe into compassion rather than going reactively to fear or jealousy, maybe together we might discover our similarities as well as the common cause and creative synergy that could lead to solutions to the dysfunction and oppressions which surround us. If I take the hand of my beloved, and they take mine, miracles can happen.