The months of the Hebrew calendar can easily be categorized. We have Nissan exploring slavery and freedom. In Tevet, Tammuz and Av we deplore hatred and the destruction it causes and pray for redemption. Shevat is for the trees and Adar involves uplifting joy.
The month of Elul, however, is more difficult to define. Although its 29 days are seen as a warm-up exercise for the month following it, Tishrei — containing the High Holidays — Elul is shrouded in mystery.
Back in the shtetl, Elul used to begin on a clear and sunny day, but the air felt different. You could feel the first stirring of a teshuvah (repentance) breeze, according to one recollection of the Elul mood. Everyone was beginning to grow a little more deliberate, a little more thoughtful, allowing spiritual affairs to occupy his or her thoughts instead of the everyday matters.
Perhaps the best explanation for the meaning of this month was given by the great Chassidic master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi with the metaphor of “The King in the Field” as published by the Meaningful Life Center.
Anyone wishing to approach a king must go through the appropriate channels in the palace bureaucracy. He then needs to journey to the capital and pass through gates and corridors that lead to the throne room. Once inside, his presentation must be meticulously prepared, and he must adhere to an exacting code of dress, speech and manner upon entering into the royal presence.
However, there are times when the king comes out to the fields outside the city when 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 an unassuming manner unavailable to the highest ranking minister in the royal court.
The month of Elul, says Rabbi Schneur Zalman, is when the king is in the field.
I had an insight into that sort of accessibility back in 2004 when I met with the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to discuss religious tolerance. These were the days before his outbursts on Israel and he was in Brussels, where I lived at the time, to lobby for his country’s inclusion in the European Union.
He received our small delegation in his suite in the luxurious Conrad Hotel in Belgium’s capital for an off-protocol meeting arranged by my friend, Rabbi Levi Matusof, who has close contacts with Turkish government officials. Erdogan was very warm and welcoming as we spoke about peace, tolerance, brotherhood and coexistence, which are crucial for the stability of the region.
That candid conversation — out of the conference room and without microphones — taught me the impact of setting and mood. And if that is the case with a head of state, imagine what we can accomplish when the King of Kings, G-d Almighty Himself, is on the campaign trail in the corn fields of Iowa, downtown Tucson and everywhere else during the month of Divine favor and grace.
He’s just waiting for you and me.
Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin is the development director of Chabad of Tucson and associate rabbi at Congregation Young Israel of Tucson. He co-founded the European Jewish Press (EJP).