What if we could derive a practice from the story of the King in the field—breathe life into it and into our own souls? How can we, in the midst of our busy, self-conscious lives, find the cozy, loving intimacy with God that is hinted at in this tale?
One of the most beautiful images for the month of Elul is that of the King in the fields. I first heard the story from Rabbi Sholom Rivkin, of blessed memory, and I believe he based it on a parable from the Baal Shem Tov. The tale goes like this:
In the old days, if you wanted to make an appointment with the King, it was a long and complicated process. You had to travel to the palace and use your connections to try to get an audience. You had to buy or borrow beautiful clothes that would bring honor to you and the King. You had to learn the court etiquette, when to bow, and how to move. You had to rehearse what you were going to say. It was an extremely formal and often intimidating experience.
But sometimes the King would go for a walk in the fields. At those times, anyone—even you—could simply begin walking alongside the king and pour out whatever was in his or her heart. And the King would listen with compassion and love.
Elul is the time when the King goes walking in the fields.
It’s a lovely, evocative story. What if we could derive a practice from the story—breathe life into it and our own souls? How can we, in the midst of our busy, self-conscious lives, find the cozy, loving intimacy with God that is hinted at in this tale?
One answer might be the practice of hitbodedut. Nachman of Breslov instructed his chasidim to engage in a particular kind of meditation. He taught them to find a private place (ideally outdoors) where they could open their hearts and speak out loud in their native language directly to God. They could talk about anything—their longings, their frustrations, their thoughts and ideas, their work. They could even talk about their doubt or their own inability to speak to God. Nachman advised his students to do this for an hour every day.
This is a most powerful practice. It is also a little paradoxical. On the one hand, Nachman was advising us to see God in an intimate, loving way—as a trusted friend with whom one has no need for shame. But in my experience, part of the power of hitbodedut is how it encourages me to be absolutely honest with myself. I certainly don’t want to lie to God! Yet, most of my lying doesn't occur because I intend to twist the truth, but, rather, because I have not been honest with myself. I want to see the “truth” in a way that suits me. Speaking out loud to God requires delving deep to speak the actual truth.
And, of course, that radical honesty, which is precisely what Elul calls us to seek, is most easily found in the context of true loving intimacy. No wonder this is the season that the King goes walking in the fields. Evoking the Divine Presence through hitbodedut, in which every thought, every desire, every doubt is permissible, allows us to walk alongside God so that we can arrive at the Days of Awe better prepared and vibrantly alive.
Rabbi Lisa Goldstein is the executive director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. She loves hiking—in fields, mountains, and other places.