The king is in the field.
Last weekend, a new moon hung in the sky, marking the new month of Elul. This season, is a time dedicated to reflection on who we are and who we can become. It is a time when we turn back to God and aim at healing our relationships.
At this time, you may hear Chabadniks greet each other, saying “the king is on the field.” It comes from a story taught by the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who was the founder of the Chabad-Lubavitcher dynasty in the 18th Century. He used to explain the month of Elul using the parable of a king coming out in a field.
According to the analogy, 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 king described by the Alter Rebbe in this metaphor is God. In his analogy, God is the ruler of all, but is hard to access except by an elite few. During Elul, the heavenly king comes out from his palace and makes himself accessible to all. In this month leading up to the High Holy Days, everyone has the chance to approach God, seeking favour and forgiveness.
It’s a beautiful analogy. But metaphors also have their problems, and we need to check them to see if they really work for us.
First of all, is God really a man? Well, of course not. God is too great and infinite to be held by anything as small as a body or a gender. Some Jews have therefore chosen only to use gender-neutral language to describe God, deploying words like “Holy One” and “Source of Life.” Alternatively, some Jews have chosen to reclaim divine feminine language, emphasising God’s femininity.
As Reform Jews, our belief in gender equality is essential to us, and that is bound to come through in how we think about God. To be honest, I’m happy addressing God by any pronouns because none of them capture what God really is. You can really insert whatever gender you like.
The much bigger question is what kind of personality this anthropomorphic God has. In the Lubavitcher parable, God is a king. There is plenty of precedent in Jewish tradition for such a reading: God is “adon olam,” the Lord of the universe; God’s throne is eternal and His sceptre stands upright; God is described as the king over all kings, and we are called upon to build God’s kingdom on earth.
I really don’t like this imagery at all. True, it tells us something about how powerful God is, but the image of a benevolent ruler isn’t very helpful to self-improvement. If a king tells you to change your ways, you’ll do it out of fear of violence or retribution. A king, to me, conjures up images of unearned power, and I want to deliberately rebel against it.
I prefer the idea of God as a loved one. When I approach Elul, I want to improve so that I can be the best possible version of myself. The people that make me aspire to that are my partner, best friends, and close family members. They remind me that I’m loved, and inspire me to do better by others.
This idea is also very present in Jewish interpretations of Elul. Some rabbis have noticed thar the letters of Elul could be an acronym for the beautiful love poetry of the Song of Solomon: ani ledodi vedodi li; “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” In this allegory, God and Israel are lovers working together. I much prefer this idea of equality and mutual partnership.
This idea of equality really doesn’t fit with how Chassids imagine God or social relationships. As they explain in the Alter Rebbe’s fable, God is only accessible to elite people most of the time. That is a core ideological belief for many Chassids. They see their rebbes not only as teachers but as holy men, who have a special connection to God. They advocate dveikus: cleaving to special people so that we, through them, can get closer to God.
They don’t hold this belief because they are somehow traditional and we are not. At the time when Chassidism was birthed, roughly contemporary with Reform Judaism, many of its greatest opponents within Orthodoxy criticised them for creating hierarchies and dynasties within Judaism. God, they said, had no intermediaries, and Judaism did not have hereditary hierarchies.
The story of the king in the field is quite beautiful, but when subjected to scrutiny, it looks much less appealing. It speaks to a worldview in which everything is divided up on a power ladder. Men above women; special Jews above ordinary people; and God as a king on top of it all.
That doesn’t mean we should completely abandon this teaching about Elul. The idea of coming back to God is helpful, and I adore the image of meeting God in the open country.
I want us to imagine an alternative. I want us to imagine what this theology would look like if all of humanity were equals. What would we say if our relationship to God was not a vertical one of subject to king but a horizontal one between lovers?
So, I submit to you, an alternative telling of the analogy of the king in the field, updated for modern times and modern beliefs.
God has turned on location sharing.
You receive a WhatsApp message. She is letting you know she’s on her way.
You haven’t seen her all year, so your heart immediately flutters with excitement. You can’t wait to see her again.
You love her. When she’s around, you feel like the best version of yourself. You laugh more. You give more of yourself. You feel more compassionate and honest. You want to bottle up the love you feel when you’re with her so that you can share it with others the rest of the year.
The little location sharing pin says she is inching closer towards you.
Only inching. She appears to be walking through fields. You calculate how long it might take him to reach you. Weeks, perhaps.
Still, seeing her is worth the wait. You wonder if you could meet her sooner.
You text back: “Can I meet you somewhere along the way?”
She answers instantly: “Yes.”
Your heart beats a little faster as you get dressed, tie your walking boots and head out. She walks faster than you. You will be reunited soon.
It is Elul. God is coming closer to you, and you are getting closer to God. As we trudge through the muddy fields of this month, let us relish the chance to draw nearer to our loving God.
The king is in the field.