Elul, Ubuntu and the Work of Building Beloved Community

Elul, Ubuntu and the Work of Building Beloved Community

Picture of Yavilah Mccoy

Yavilah Mccoy

The rabbis teach us that Elul is actually an acronym. Each of the Hebrew letters  alef, lamed, vav, lamed – stand for the beginning letter of each word in the phrase ani ledodi vedodi li  “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” This phrase is taken from Song of Songs 6:3 and signifies the time leading into the Jewish High Holidays when we are meant to reflect on the relationship between “self” and “others.” In my own experience, I have also found this period to be a great time to reflect on my individual and our collective capacity to change the world through building more beloved communities. I have found this to be a great time to inspect how I am interacting with those around me and supporting the broadest experience of my own humanity by recognizing the inherent dignity and value that exists in everyone I encounter. During the month of Elul and during the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are encouraged to engage in an exploration of “self” called “cheshbon hanefesh” – an “accounting” or “realigning” of our purpose by deepening our perceivable connections to our life-source/our wellsprings/our souls. In preparation for seeking atonement and reconciliation with others, Jewish tradition teaches us to begin by healing ourselves.

As we approach Elul 5779, and I remember the year that has been 2019-20, I can’t remember a time when I’ve felt a more abundant need for healing and deeper human connection in myself and in those around me. Those of us who are living, have lived through attacks perpetrated on our loved ones through gun violence. As a US society we are living through daily attacks made on democratic rights, freedoms and legislative policies set up to protect the most vulnerable among us- immigrants, refugees, women, people of color, students, faith communities, LGBTQI communities and many others. Globally, we are facing the looming threat of neo-fascism overreaching democracy in the US and Europe. We face the rise of global terror, perils to our natural resources and environment, and some would say, crises born of destabilization and change that the world has not faced since 1945 and WWII. In these days of Elul, I am asking of myself and others: What is the “cheshbon hanefesh” truth-telling, accounting, realigning and healing that we can best use to ameliorate the hurts of our aching world What is the teshuvah/atonement that our world is calling for each of us to enact in our relationships with others?

In these times when this question wakes me in the early morning and sometimes in the middle of the night, I am entering Elul acknowledging that work to repair a single relationship where there has been harm, much less a global society, can often be challenging, so I am holding myself accountable to approach this question with humility, and to ask it in the spirit of beginning with what is within reach of each of my hands to accomplish. As I look around me, I am encouraged by the many individuals and communities that I meet in the work of building equity who are courageously resisting darkness around them by reaching for their power to enact atonement, healing and reconciliation on personal, interpersonal, systemic/institutional, and cultural levels. I am hopeful regarding the many leaders I have met who are facing the challenges of our times by acknowledging and accounting for past inequities in leadership, distribution of resources and services. I am encouraged by those who are making commitments to deepen equity and restore justice in the world around them by checking in regularly with those who have been historically marginalized by systems, policies and structures that they may have benefited from. I am inspired by their leadership choices to connect with communities and ask what they need, by their choices to amend systems, policies and structures that have enacted harm, by their visionary work to assure that they are leading forward to a future where the mistakes of our past will not be repeated and where members of our beloved communities will get what they need to experience the basic human right of life with dignity and value. These leadership choices are markers for restorative justice and closely mirror the instructions that Maimonides’ provides for the process of “teshuvah”/repentance: admitting wrongdoing, seeking forgiveness from those you have wronged, and committing to changing one’s behavior so that past wrongs are not repeated.

Contemplation and embodiment of the Elul acronym “Ani Ledodi…” inspires me to use this sacred time on the Jewish calendar to deepen my practice of humility, love and reciprocity. In my recent learning and journeying with leaders across the globe, I have found deep joy in connecting my Jewish learning regarding the meaning of “Ani Ledodi” and “teshuvah” to the concepts that inform the South African term – Ubuntu. Over this past year, I have been blessed to make several trips to South Africa to work with an extraordinary group of transglobal leaders who are exploring global solutions for dismantling systemic racial inequality. One of the group’s agreed upon principles for shaping this learning journey has been Ubuntu. Ubuntu (Zulu pronunciation: [ùɓúntʼù]) is a Nguni Bantu term meaning “humanity.” It has often been translated as “I am because we are,” or “humanity towards others”, but it is also used in a more philosophical sense to mean “we believe in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.” In our fellowship, Ubuntu, has made room for leaders to connect their human purpose to the work of growing racial equity globally. The concept of Ubuntu has also welcomed leaders to connect their lives and journeys to work that was begun before they were born- with their ancestors. I witnessed the power of living Ubuntu when several African women surrounded a young black male leader in the group and spontaneously sang and danced a tribal ritual for rite of passage when he finished visioning a world where his pioneering work on the “Black Mama Bailout” would be supported by a society that so valued Black women that none of them could ever disappear again without whole communities rising up to look for them and secure their safety. Ubuntu, made me weep, upon hearing my African-American grandfather’s saying “Don’t ever let anyone steal your joy!” in the mouth of an African woman I had never met, who spoke these words in another language and came from a culture quite different than my own, yet had inherited this same principle from her parents and grandparents. Through these experiences, Ani Ledodi, Vedodi Li – I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me- was translated to me as a call to action to a very particular teshuvah that I believe is essential to building and maintaining the compassionate, strong and accountable relationships we will need to move global collaboration and collective visioning for a better future forward. Ubuntu called me to a teshuvah that inspired me to remember my ancestors (those I was born to and those that I have claimed) and to build equity through acknowledgement of transgenerational accountability. Ubuntu has called me to the teshuvah of remembering both who I am to myself and my family and who I am to the world by valuing those who have come before me in this work and upon whose shoulders I stand. Ubuntu has inspired me to witness the need for equity as a transglobal issue that connects us across geography and beyond borders to other humans whose dignity and value matter to us and who are counting on us to remember our mutuality and interconnectedness. In the month of Elul, Ubuntu has deepened my value and deep respect for connections that already exists across humanity beyond language, beyond spoken words and that we are each accountable to live into –Ani Ledodi V’dodi Li– “I am because you are…”

As we enter this Elul, I invite you into deeper reflection with me on the meaning of Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li. I also invite you to reflect with me on the power of gratitude. Contemporary philosopher Mark Nepo, teaches that “gratitude awakens love in the receiver and inspires it in the giver as well.” He teaches that in all of our relationships — marriage, friendship, business — we are natural experts at seeing what those around us are doing wrong, but often have to make a real effort to focus on what’s been going right. On this long journey that has brought us to this crossroads in time that is Elul 5779 and soon to be January 2020, I am spending time noticing who has been with me? Who has stood by my side? Who has challenged me and made me better? Who has said little, but moved graciously alongside me, at their own pace learning and taking in what they could until their own seeds could flower? Ani Ledodi V’dodi Li– I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me… How many of those around us, seen and unseen, deserve not just our service, but our gratitude?

In “On the Pulse of Morning” the great poet and prophet Maya Angelou states: “I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree, I am yours–your passages have been paid. Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need for this bright morning dawning for you.” My hope for all of us in Elul 5779 and January 2020, is that we will receive the coming of the New Year as those freshly awakened by the dawn. As at dawn, we may not be sure if what we are seeing around us is the waxing or the waning of the light, but my hope is that whatever comes next will find us resolute in commitments to grow more light within ourselves and for those who are walking with us. This Elul, I am grateful to all those who are continuing to choose the dawn and work with as many open-hearted humans as they can find to value our multi-racial, multi-ethnic, cross-classed, multi-gendered, differently observant, differently abled, and intergenerational community as beloved- worthy of our giving and receiving care, compassion and love. May our liberation continue to be tied to the liberation of all humanity and to our capacity to listen, learn, grow and take action together. I am with you.