The King in the Field
In going out to the field in Elul, the King makes himself accessible to His people. It is the people, however, who must take the step of turning to Him...
Our rabbis note that the name Elul is an acronym for the biblical phraseani ledodi vedodi li—“I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine.” In other words, the intense love between G‑d and the Jewish people comes to the surface during Elul. This particular verse also indicates that during Elul, it is man who takes the initiative in his relationship with G‑d. In chassidic thought this verse is contrasted with a similar verse, “My Beloved is mine, and I am His,” which reflects a different expression of this love relationship. “My Beloved is mine” suggests the initiative is taken by divine revelation, which then evokes a response from man. “I am my Beloved’s,” by contrast, suggests an expression of love initiated by man, to which G‑d responds.
In Likkutei Torah, the Alter Rebbe describes the tightening of the bond between G‑d and the Jewish people in the month of Elul with the following parable:
Before a king enters his city, its inhabitants go out to greet him and receive him in the field. At that time, anyone who so desires is granted permission [and can] approach him and greet him. He receives them all pleasantly, and shows a smiling countenance to all…
This parable appears to contradict the direction suggested by the phrase, “I am my Beloved’s,” for the parable seems to indicate that in Elul it is G‑d Who initiates the relationship, by revealing His Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. (The sages explain that these Attributes refer to an unlimited expression of divine love.) In contrast, the verse “I am my Beloved’s” indicates that the initiative is taken by man.
In chassidic thought, this difficulty is resolved by explaining that the revelation of the king in the field, i.e., the expression of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy in the month of Elul, generates the potential for the initiative to be taken by man. Otherwise the people of the field, ordinary men whose spiritual attainments are modest, would be incapable of turning to G‑d with the inspired commitment expressed by the phrase, “I am my Beloved’s.”
Though the potential is initially granted from above, the nurturing of the love relationship depends on man’s initiative. The revelation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy is merely a catalyst. In going out to the field, the king makes himself accessible to his people. It is the people, however, who must take the step of turning to him.
In Likkutei Torah, the parable is further used to explain the difference between the revelation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy in the month of Elul, and the revelation of these attributes on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, the king is in his palace; G‑d reveals Himself in all His majesty. During Elul, however, the king is in the field; G‑d reveals Himself at a level which can be apprehended by man within the framework of his mundane reality.
However, G‑d descends to this level not only in order to make Himself accessible to man. Rather, to borrow the terms of the analogy, the king meets his people in the field because a field has intrinsic value.
A field is a place where grain grows. Growing grain and converting it into the food which sustains us requires a great deal of effort. And this effort symbolizes the full scope of our activities within our mundane sphere.
The value of these activities can be seen from the fact that most of our time is spent dealing with our material needs and earning the means by which to provide for them, as it is written, “Six days shall you work, and the seventh day shall be a Shabbos unto the L‑rd, your G‑d.”
Faced with this state of affairs, we are inclined to wonder why G‑d designed a world in which man is forced to involve himself primarily in material rather than in spiritual activities. The reason for this seemingly problematic apportioning of time is that it reflects the purpose of creation. G‑d created the world so that He could have a “dwelling place in the lower worlds.” In accordance with this desire, our service of G‑d has to center on the ordinary details of existence for the purpose of infusing them with G‑dliness, and not on the purely spiritual as it exists on an abstract plane.
In light of this, we can appreciate the significance of our parable to the month of Elul. The king’s presence in the field represents the ultimate purpose of creation. Our efforts must be directed towards bringing G‑dliness into our material world. G‑d’s presence must be found not only in the royal palace, i.e., where spirituality is manifest; rather, even the lowest realms of existence must be transformed into a dwelling place for Him.
The parable of the king in the field expresses the importance of our divine service within the framework of the ordinary, but it also underscores the unique relationship between the king and His subjects. In the field, “he receives them all pleasantly and shows a smiling countenance to all.” In the “field,” G‑d allows His subjects to relate to Him as His presence is manifest.
Throughout the year, we emphasize the importance of carrying out our service of G‑d in the field with the intent that this should lead to the revelation of the King’s presence. In Elul, which marks the culmination of this service—and the preparation for the coming year—our efforts are rewarded by the perceptible revelation of the King’s presence.
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Excerpts from “Sichos in English”, reprinted with the kind permission of www.sichosinenglish.org