Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains the paradox of Elul with the following metaphor: The king’s usual place is in the capital city, in the royal palace. Anyone wishing to approach the king must go through the appropriate channels in the palace bureaucracy and gain the approval of a succession of royal secretaries and ministers. They must journey to the capital and pass through the many gates, corridors and antechambers that lead to the throne room. Their presentation must be meticulously prepared, and they must adhere to an exacting code of dress, speech and mannerism upon entering into the royal presence.
The ORacle, September 2011 Issue
However, there are times when the king comes out to the fields outside the city. At such times, anyone can approach the king; the king receives them all with a smiling face and a radiant countenance. The peasant behind his plow has access to the king in a manner unavailable to the highest ranking minister in the royal court when the king is in the palace. [Likkutei Torah, Re’eh 32b].
This Chasidic parable teaches us about the month of Elul, the Hebrew month before Rosh Hashana. This month is devoted to a careful examination of who we are. During Elul, we understand more deeply the ways we have failed—ourselves, each other, and the Eternal. Our introspection leads to remorse for the harm we have done, restitution when possible, and turning away from our past selves to better selves who will act differently in the coming year.
This parable recognizes the difficulty of teshuva–deep introspection and amending our ways, and teaches that during this time we possess greater accessibility to the Eternal. The Jewish soul yearns to sincerely turn inward and will, in turn, find Transcendent comfort within. While the image of the Eternal as King may not resonate with many of us, perhaps the conception of the Divine in the field, close to us as we go about our daily lives is valuable. This metaphor of approachability urges us to seize the opportunity for teshuva. As a guide, I highly recommend This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared by Rabbi Allan Lew. It ushers us from Elul through Yom Kippur providing a myriad of opportunities to connect with Jewish concepts and rituals.
As a community, we will also celebrate S’lichot on September 24th. Our evening will begin with an oneg and Havdalah and move into a stirring candlelight service filled with haunting melodies which capture our fervent prayers as Rosh Hashanah approaches. I look forward to seeing you there, and may we all have the koach, the strength, to engage in true teshuva and enter the New Year liberated to be our best selves.