The King Is in the Field: Lessons of Elul

September 27, 2016Hannah Kestenbaum

Mondays are a universally hated day. We drudge along during the week, looking forward to a couple of days of rest, only to restart the process all over again the next week.

Thankfully, we have, intrinsic to our religion, a day for us to rest. It is a day that separates the mundane from the holy during which we can disconnect from our work and focus on our family and ourselves. As welcome as it is, one (or two) days a week is not enough for us to really work on ourselves. The weekend ends as quickly as it began, and we start our routine again.

In order for us to really change, we need to allocate time for it.

Elul is that time.

During this one month of the year, we are responsible for deep introspection, with the goal of arriving at Rosh HaShanah fully aware of ourselves, what we have done, what we want to do, and where we are going. Elul is our time to connect to Israel – for ourselves, for our people, and for our land.

I think there are two main lessons to take from Elul.

Lesson number one:

Judaism prescribes a set of prayers, Selichot, for us to use to help us look into ourselves. From the beginning of Elul until Rosh Hashanah, we repeat Ani l’dodi v’dodi li (I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine), the iteration of Elul as an acronym in Hebrew.

While “my beloved” could be my wonderful husband, or my daughters, or perhaps even my parents, I think it is a much more symbolic beloved – Israel.

We are connected not only on a physical level, but also a spiritual one, to the land of Israel. Israel is our beloved, and she is as much ours as we are hers.

For the month of Elul, I try to repeat to myself daily the lines above. When I say them, I am reminding myself that I am not connected to Israel just because I like falafel or because the sand at Herzliya beaches is like baby powder, but because I am religiously and ancestrally linked to the land and the people.

They also remind me that I cannot be the best version of myself, the one I am working on building as we approach Rosh HaShanah, without acknowledging my relationship with Am Yisrael (the people of Israel), Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel), and Torah (the law of Israel).

As a Jew, I cannot separate myself from Israel. My identity is intertwined with that of Israel, and therefore, I need to acknowledge that I am Israel’s and Israel is mine.

Lesson number two:

For change to happen, both in us and in the world, we must first acknowledge our faults. Elul is meant to be disruptive. We disrupt our lives to take note of our weaknesses and strengths, where there is room for improvement and where we excelled.

Elul also gives us a mouthpiece. In biblical times, the king would come out to the fields during Elul to speak to the people while they were doing their mundane work. When he did, they would show that the sustenance on which he lived was dependent on their field work and on their harvest.

If the modern fields are cubicles, office buildings, and social media, then today’s kings are our elected officials and those bestowed with the privilege of leadership -- in the United States and, more importantly, Israel.

Elul is our time to show our worth to Israel’s formal leadership, and we can only do that if we make ourselves available to do so. How can the king see the importance of our work if we are not speaking clearly, articulately, and boldly? How can Prime Minister Netanyahu see the legitimacy behind different streams of Judaism if we are not showing it proudly?

We can use the month of Elul to unite our voices, work, and values with such Israeli institutions as the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) and the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) to advance pluralism, equality, and religious freedom in Israel.

Indeed, if we are to be heard and respected, and if our work is to be raised from mundane to holy, we must show up in the field. Only those who speak will be heard, and only those who have something to say will speak. The month of Elul affords us an annual and profound mouthpiece, and I, for one, intend to use it.

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