The King is in the Field – Spiritual Preparation for the High Holidays
How’s your prayer life? This is not exactly the first question that we ask one another in our Jewish communities; not because it is too intimate or personal, but because most of us don’t think of an inner life of prayer as central to our daily existence. Some of us connect to the form, to the wonderful mitzvah of morning minyan, or to the comforting melodies of our Shabbat services, but the amount of words and the distant metaphors of royalty and power can be alienating from a deep spiritual connection for many of us.
The month of Elul invites us to prepare for the Days of Awe, not just in the landscape of the world of our broken human relationships, but within ourselves and in our relationship with the Divine source, which is more available to us in Elul, the month whose letters have been interpreted as an acrostic for the verse from Song of Songs, “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li – I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.” The Baal Shem Tov taught of this month that ushers in the New Year that “the King is in the field.” This spiritually empowering image suggests that God, as it were, has come off the throne to wander with us through the everyday meadows of our lives.
It is easy to get lost in the words and metaphors of the High Holiday liturgy and even in our Shabbat services. Some of us crave moments of stillness and silence as a part of our spiritual practice, even while having so much appreciation and sensitivity to our magnificent tradition. The ultimate power of these days and Judaism’s spiritual message is not the image of God as King, nor the penetrating call of the Shofar, nor the haunting melodies of this season sung in community, but the kol d’mama daka, that still and silent voice in our own hearts.
The months of Elul and Tishrei intimately invite us to be in better relationship with the self (beyn adam l’atzmo), with the other (beyn adam l’havero) and with the Ultimate Other (beyn adam l’makom.) Teshuvah, Tefillah, Tezedakah, returning, praying and giving are three pillars that touch in each of these realms of relationship; internal, horizontal and vertical, allowing us to be better equipped for the challenges that life will inevitably bestow upon us.
Some of us are wary of spirituality because it can appear to be indulgent, narcissistic even, with a “navel gazing” that removes us from the world. Deep spirituality, however, connects us in all dimensions and empowers us to be more engaged with the world and our role in Tikkun, in repairing its brokenness. The legendary Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in a brilliant essay called On Prayer, published in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (edited in 1997 by Susannah Heschel), radically claims, “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision…”
Our spiritual lives are complex and paradoxical: many of us crave a deep inner life of prayer and meditation, yet we know that such a life that removes us from the world, especially when there is such an urgent need for our compassion and our activism, is somehow antithetical to our Jewish values. For Heschel, fighting for civil rights and deep Jewish spirituality were synonymous. Of his march in Selma, Alabama with Reverend Martin Luther King Junior, he famously said of that day, “my feet were praying.”
Filling our hearts with prayer, our mouths with song and our hands and feet with compassionate action in the world are good goals to set for ourselves as we start to prepare for the Yamim Noraim, the awesome days ahead of us.
I am so excited by the wonderful opportunity to work with my mentor and friend, Rabbi Jonathan, in creating some experiential workshops and alternative services, to help us in this journey within ourselves and in community. Our hope is that together we can gently open some pathways for meaningful preparation for the High Holidays and deepen our personal connection to prayer and spiritual practice, whether as individuals striving for meaning and connection, or as leaders hoping to help others in this soulful journey.
Marc has been the rabbi of Bonai Shalom in Boulder, Colorado, since his ordination from the Ziegler School in LA in 2004. Much of his rabbinate is informed and inspired by his continuing relationship with Masorti Judaism, New North London Synagogue and specifically his friend and mentor Jonathan Wittenberg.
Join Marc Soloway and Jonathan Wittenberg at NNLS for a weekend of exploration in preparation for the Yamim Noraim, including alternative Shabbat services and a meditative Sunday morning Shacharit service (link to more info coming soon).