Elul: The king in the field

Stark against the skyline
stands the palace of the king
set in solitary splendor,
while in surrounding fields
his subjects toil at sundry tasks.

Rays of sun against the azure vault
are mirrored
in an undulating sea of golden wheat.
A gentle zephyr parts a pathway, as
upright wheat stalks bend aside in homage.

The farmer turns, his eyes alight,
a smile of welcome kindled
on his weather-beaten face,
his mud-encrusted hands
holding tightly to the scythe.

His heart leaps, for the year
has come full spin once more
– the king is in the field.


In an article based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, http://www.chabad.org/holidays/JewishNewYear/template_cdo/aid/56889/jewish/The-King-in-the-Field.htm, Rabbi Yanki Tauber ponders the significance of the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year, which he describes as “a time of paradox – a time of what might be termed, “spiritual workdays” .”
He notes that Jewish time is generally divided between mundane (chol) and holy (kodesh). (The Havdalah service marks the transition between holy and mundane time). Ordinary workdays are mundane, while Shabbat and the festivals are holy. On the latter, there is an attempt to turn inwards, away from material pursuits and towards the spiritual aspects of life. He adds that each of these holy days has a specific quality, like rest on Shabbat, freedom on Pesach etc. Elul, he notes, has qualities both mundane and holy. The days of Elul are workdays, but they incorporate holy aspects of introspection and preparation for the upcoming Days of Awe.
Rabbi Tauber cites the teaching of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi* who, he says, “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 secretaries and ministers. He must journey to the capital and pass through the many gates, corridors and antechambers that lead to the throne room. His presentation must be meticulously prepared, and he must adhere to an exacting code of dress, speech and mannerism upon entering into the royal presence.
“However, there are times when the king comes out to the fields outside the city. At such times, anyone can approach him; 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.
“The month of Elul, says Rabbi Schneur Zalman, is when the king is in the field.”
Rabbi Tauber expounds on the meaning of the field which he says is “the prototype employed by Torah law to define the “work” that distinguishes between the holy and mundane days of the calendar.” He points out that although a minority of people nowadays actually farm the land which ultimately brings forth the bread, everyone labors for bread. He adds, “For eleven months of the year, our lives alternate between the field and the palace, between the “process of bread-making” of material life and the sublime moments in which we leave the field to enter into the royal presence. In the month of Elul, however, the king comes to the field.”
Rabbi Tauber goes on to explore the difference between the palace which symbolizes the holy, and the field which symbolizes the mundane. He concludes that they are not really as different as they seem on the surface. He notes that the “work” that is forbidden on Shabbat and Chagim is derived from the 39 types of work employed in the building of the Mishkan, the Sanctuary, which was intended to draw down God’s presence into the physical world. So the work of the Sanctuary, says Rabbi Tauber, is the blueprint for the work of life. He cites the Tanya, “This is what man is all about, this is the purpose of his creation and the creation of all worlds, supernal and ephemeral — to make G-d a dwelling in the physical world.” Therefore, he wonders, why is weekday, mundane work less holy if it is intended to bring God into the world? And why are we enjoined to desist from it on the holy days? Rabbi Tauber posits that the difference between mundane and holy times, is not one of essence, rather of perspective. He says, “Beyond its mundane surface, the material world possesses a deeper truth — its potential to house the goodness and perfection of its Creator. The purpose of our workday lives is to reveal this potential — to develop the material world as a home for G-d. But on the workdays of our life, this potential is all but invisible to us, obscured by the very process that serves to bring it to light. Our very involvement with the material prevents us from experiencing its spiritual essence. To do so, we must rise above it.
“A “holy” day is an elevation in the terrain of time, a lookout tower that rises above the surface of our workday lives to behold the true essence of our world — the essence we are laboring to actualize…
“So one day a week, and on special occasions throughout the year, we cease our work in “the field” to gain a more transcendent view of our workday labors. Then, when we reenter the so-called “mundane” days of our lives, the Shabbat or festival experience lingers on. Enriched with insight into the true nature of our labors, fortified by the vision of what our involvement with the material will ultimately achieve, our workday lives become more focused on their goal, and less susceptible to the diversions and entanglements of the mundane.”
But, Rabbi Tauber notes, there is an exception, and that is the month of Elul. For during the month of Elul, the king comes to the field. He says, “The king, though sequestered behind the palace walls and bureaucracy, though glimpsed, if at all, through a veil of opulence and majesty, is a very real part of the farmer’s field. He is the why of his plowing, the reason for his sowing, the objective of his harvest. No farmer labors for the sake of labor. He labors to transcend the dust of which he and his field are formed, to make more of what is. He labors for his dreams. He labors for his king…”
Rabbi Tauber notes that on Shabbat, the farmer is invited to the palace. He changes out of his work-stained clothes bathes and dons his best clothes. His demeanor is refined. In Elul, when the king appears in the field, the farmer continues with his labor, but not as though he is unaware of the king’s presence. The atmosphere is charged with holiness. The farmer is more circumspect in his behavior – which might manifest itself in practical terms by more fervent prayer, greater charitableness, increased Torah study.
Rabbi Tauber concludes, “In the month of Elul, the essence and objective of life become that much more accessible. No longer do the material trappings of life conceal and distort its purpose, for the king has emerged from the concealment of his palace and is here, in the field. But unlike the holy days of the year, when we are lifted out of our workday lives, the encounter of Elul is hosted by our physical selves, within our material environment, on our working-man’s terms.”

*Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady (1745 – 1812) was an Orthodox Rabbi, and the founder and first Rebbe of Chabad, a branch of Hasidic Judaism, then based in Liadi, Imperial Russia. He was the author of many works, including the Tanya for which he is known also as the “Baal HaTanya”. The Tanya is the main work of the Chabad philosophy and the Chabad approach to Hasidic mysticism, as it defines its general interpretation and method.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman was born in the small town of Liozna, Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (present-day Belarus). He was the great-grandson of the mystic and philosopher Rabbi Judah Loew, the “Maharal of Prague” and was a prominent (and the youngest) disciple of Rabbi Dovber of Mezeritch, the “Great Maggid”, who was in turn the successor of the founder of Chasidism, Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer known as the Baal Shem Tov.
He displayed extraordinary talent while still a child. By the time he was 8 years old he wrote an all-inclusive commentary on the Chumash based on the works of Rashi, the Ramban and Eben Ezra.
Until the age of twelve, he studied under Rabbi Issachar Ber, in Lyubavichi (Lubavitch); he distinguished himself as a Talmudist, such that his teacher sent him back home, informing his father that the boy could continue his studies without the aid of a teacher.
At his Bar Mitzvah celebration he delivered a discourse concerning the complicated laws of Kiddush Hachodesh, to which the people of the town granted him the title “Rav”.
At age fifteen he married Sterna Segal, the daughter of Yehuda Leib Segal, a wealthy resident of Vitebsk, and he was then able to devote himself entirely to study. During these years, R’ Shneur Zalman was introduced to mathematics, geometry and astronomy by two learned brothers, refugees from Bohemia, who had settled in Liozna. One of them was also a scholar of the Kabbalah. Thus, besides mastering rabbinic literature, he also acquired a fair knowledge of the sciences, philosophy, and Kabbalah. He became an adept in Rabbi Isaac Luria’s system of Kabbalah, and in 1764 he became a disciple of Rabbi Dovber of Mezeritch. In 1767, at the age of 22, he was appointed maggid of Liozna, a position he held until 1801. When he died, his son Rabbi Dovber Schneuri succeeded him as Rebbe of the Chabad movement.

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