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The King is in the Field: Lessons of Elul

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Hannah Kestenbaum

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For one month of the year, the month of Elul, 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---ourselves, our people, and our land.

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 over.

Thankfully, we have, intrinsic to our religion, a day for us to rest. It is a day for us to separate the mundane from the holy, a day for us to disconnect with our work and focus on our family and ourselves. Yet 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 begin our routine again.

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

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

Lesson number one:

Judaism prescribes a set of prayers for us to use to help us look internally into ourselves known as Selihot. Until Rosh Hashanah, we repeat “אני לדודי ודודי לי” I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine, the iteration of Elul as an acronym (אלו"ל).

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 it is as much ours as we are hers.

For the month of Elul (or, at least, I try for the whole month) I repeat to myself 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.

It also reminds 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 the connection I have with Israel. My identity is intertwined with that of Israels, and therefore, I need to acknowledge that I am Israel's and Israel is mine.

Lesson number two:

For change to happen, both in ourselves 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, in the month of Elul, the king would come out to the fields. He would go where the people were doing their mundane work, and speak to them. During that time, they would show that the sustenance on which the King lived was dependent on their field work, 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 the privilege of leadership, in the United States, and more importantly, Israel.

It 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 PM 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 and work with Israeli institutions, like IMPJ or IRAC, to further our values of pluralism, equality, and religious freedom in Israel.

Indeed, if we are to be heard, respected, and our work is to be raised from mundane to holy, we must show up at the field. Only those who speak will be heard, and only those who have what to say will speak.

The month of Elul affords an annual and profound mouthpiece, and I, for one, intend to use it.