One of my favorite stories for the month of Elul comes from the teaching of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Hasidism. Once upon a time, the rebbe teaches, there was a king of a great kingdom. The people in his kingdom wanted the chance to meet with him, and they tried to schedule appointments, but they discovered that palaces are places of great hierarchy. They might have to wait months before they could gain an audience! And this troubled them greatly.
But then they realized the king had been out and about exploring the kingdom, and that he was only now on his way back to his palace. And while he was on the road, the usual protocols that made them feel like they couldn't approach him were temporarily in abeyance. Anyone who brought him some water or offered him a place to stay or walked beside his retinue for a while could have an audience with him in the countryside. Once he made it back to his palace he would seem distant from them, but while he was on the road, he was right there, reachable at any time.
One of the primary metaphors of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy is God-as-king. It's a metaphor that may feel distancing or unworkable for us. We live in a modern world where kings don't have the power they once did. We may be suspicious of kingship, with its imperialist implications. But I see in Schneur Zalman's story a sense that our ancestors felt distant from the grandeur of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy too -- and that they longed, as maybe we long, to connect with an aspect of God with whom we can speak in an ordinary way. Elul is our chance to be on the road with the Holy One, part of God's own retinue.
(Somehow I'm guessing that's not what John Hiatt had in mind when he penned Riding With the King [YouTube]. Hope you don't mind that I borrowed your song title for this post, John.)
The Days of Awe have awesome liturgy. Melodically, poetically, textually, the prayers we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are grand and elevated. But this month of Elul, the moon that waxes and wanes before the Days of Awe begin, is a time when God is extra-accessible. Our High Holiday liturgy features a fair amount of pomp and circumstance. But these weeks leading up to them offer an opportunity to meet God in the fields and along the roads, to connect in a way that's quieter and more personal, maybe an easier time and place to pour out our hearts.
Another Elul teaching that I like a lot is this one, which I learned from Reb Zalman. (It depends on some creative wrangling of the Jewish calendar, but bear with me; I think the payoff is worth it.) Tradition tells us that the Torah was given on Shavuot, the sixth day of the month of Sivan. Moshe went up to the mountaintop for forty days. He came down on the 17th day of Tammuz, saw the Golden Calf, and broke the tablets in anger and sorrow. For forty more days, Moses and God went back and forth on whether or not to forgive the Israelites their transgression. Finally, the word came down: "Fine, carve two more tablets and come on up, and I'll engrave them." The day that Moshe goes up with the two new tablets is the first day of Elul. Just as Moshe spent this month in communion with God, so, too, can we.
Moshe returns with the new tablets forty days later, on Yom Kippur. So Yom Kippur becomes a day for special revelation, for receiving new wisdom and insight from beyond. Spending Elul doing the work of teshuvah -- considering who we are and who we want to be, making the myriad little course-corrections that are always necessary in our lives -- is a way of preparing ourselves to receive something big on Yom Kippur.
But that's not where we are yet. Right now we're laying groundwork. We're looking inward at our hearts and souls. We're kicking back with the Beloved in the flowering fields; we're riding with the king.