One of the most well-known parables mentioned in Chabad philosophy is that of the “King in the Field.” This parable, whose source is a chassidic discourse delivered by the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, illustrates the inner workings of the month of Elul, the month preceding the High Holidays.
The Rebbe discussed this parable on numerous occasions, delving into its depths and extrapolating many messages implicit in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s wording. But first, a little background is in order.
The History of Elul
On the first day of Elul, in 1313 BCE, Moses ascended Mount Sinai. Some six weeks earlier he had shattered the first set of tablets, inscribed with the Ten Commandments, and now he took along with him a second set of tablets, which he had hewn at G‑d’s directive, for G‑d to re-engrave with the Ten Commandments.
Moses remained on the mountain for forty days, until the tenth of the Jewish month of Tishrei (henceforth known as Yom Kippur), and brought down the second set of tablets, demonstrating G‑d’s wholehearted forgiveness and reconciliation with the people of Israel, following their betrayal of the covenant between them with their worship of the Golden Calf.
Ever since then, the month is referred to as a period of “divine mercy and forgiveness.” Our sages taught that just as in response to Moses’ plea for forgiveness, G‑d responded “I forgive”—so too, if we return to the ways of G‑d, especially during these days prior to the High Holidays, we will merit G‑d’s forgiveness.
All in all, Elul is a time of reflection, thinking of what we did in the past year and what has to be corrected. Click here for more on this special month.
When the King Leaves the Palace
Rabbi Schneur Zalman said that it is a month of immense opportunity, not one of dejection.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi revealed a new dimension to this month. He taught that G‑d is closer to us during this month, more so than any other time throughout the year. He said that it is a month of immense opportunity, not one of dejection.
In Song of Songs, the verse (6:3) says, “I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me.” In the original Hebrew (אני לדודי ודודי לי), these words’ first letters spell out Elul (אלול). The verse teaches us that at this time G‑d’s relationship to us is one of love and tenderness; He is our “Beloved.”
It is this feeling of closeness and friendship that propels us to return to G‑d.
To illustrate this idea, Rabbi Schneur Zalman gives the following parable:
During the entire year, when the king is in his palace, for most there is no possibility for an audience with the king. Even of those who hope and apply for an audience, only a select few are actually granted one.
There comes a time, however, when the king is not in the capital city; he is out in the field. While there, every one of his subjects can go to greet him. The king graciously receives every single one of them and shows a happy and radiant face, granting them their requests.
They then escort him to the city. He enters his palace, where at that moment, once again, only a select few are granted an audience. Returning with the king, though, the dedicated subjects who greeted the king are now part of that exclusive group, and are granted an audience with the king in his throne room.
In His great love for us, during the month of Elul G‑d goes out to the fields.
This parable parallels our relationship with G‑d during the High Holiday season.
Throughout the entire year, G‑d is reachable through following the divine will—His precepts, the mitzvot—and immersing in His wisdom, the Torah.
An individual may feel, however, that he is not following the correct path, his passions are not holy, he is not living according to G‑d’s blueprint. This individual is akin to the citizen who left the populated capital city and goes off to the unpopulated fields, or even further, into the woods or desert. He has wandered away from the King’s capital. Sensing how distant he is, he might feel totally estranged; he has no connection to the King.
In His great love for us, during the month of Elul G‑d goes out to the fields, making Himself available to all. This outpouring of love uplifts and encourages, even those of us who may feel very distanced due to our actions. When we see how G‑d graciously receives us in the field, smiling and granting our requests, we resolve to once again reconnect and conduct ourselves in a manner befitting a loyal subject of the King.
And then, come the High Holidays, we escort the King back to the capital and settle there once again, and actually join Him in His inner chamber.
This is the gist of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s teaching. Let us now study some (or, to be more accurate, a tip of the iceberg) of the Rebbe’s insights on the parable.
Taking the First Step
The king is giving everyone the opportunity to greet him, but it has to be the subjects’ desire to go and greet him.
The verse quoted above states, “I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me.” The order is precise. During this month we must take the first step towards our Beloved.
Being in a king’s presence, as he majestically sits on his throne, engenders an incredible overwhelming awe within all those present. Upon entering the throne room and seeing the display of power and glory, all subjects prostrate themselves before the king. Speaking, or even moving, is done only with the king’s consent. The subjects lose all sense of personal identity. They are simply subjects, nullified before the king’s glory.
This all changes when the king goes out to the field. He is traveling, and as such he is unadorned by his crown and royal vestments. He is not displaying his majestic greatness, and not evoking a response of great awe and respect. The subjects are not naturally gravitating to approach the king.
The king is giving everyone the opportunity to greet him, but it has to be the subjects’ desire to go and greet him. No one is forced to approach the king. Coming on their own is an expression of humility, an acknowledgement of the king and the need to relate to him.
This is why we traditionally increase our charity disbursement and prayers during the month of Elul—it is our way of taking the “first step.” And every day we listen to the shofar (ram’s horn), to awaken within ourselves the desire to approach the King and greet Him. The King is there in the field, giving us this special opportunity. But we must capitalize on it . . .
As opposed to Rosh Hashanah, when sounding the shofar is a biblical command, sounding the shofar during Elul is a Jewish custom, a product of our own initiative. It is us going out, with humility and joy, to greet the King, G‑d Almighty.
This declaration is extremely precious to G‑d. We are not humbling ourselves because of the greatness of the day (as we do on the High Holidays); rather, it is our own desire to humble ourselves before Him. This endears us to the extent that we then join the elite group that is granted an audience with the King.
Back to the Palace
The purpose of the entire creation is that we make of it, of “the lowest world,” a “home for G‑d.”
This is why G‑d comes to the field, and so loves when we receive Him there. His desire to be manifest in the “lowest world” is symbolized by the fact that He leaves the palace and goes into the lowly “field,” where His subjects accept Him as their king.
But a home is more than a place where the owner happens to be; it is the place where he fully expresses himself. The house is decorated according to his taste, and he feels free to just “be himself” there.
While in the field, G‑d’s full glory is not seen or displayed. As such, the “home” created there for Him is incomplete.
To create the true divine home, we must introduce the “palace” element, where G‑d’s glory is completely revealed, where he wears His crown, royal garments, etc.
So when we accomplish the mission of demonstrating that even the “field” is governed by G‑d, we then follow Him into the palace where there is only He and us—which is the essence of the High Holidays.