A long time ago (circa the late 1700s), Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady taught us something new about God and metaphor.
For centuries, Jews had called God “King” (or even more intensely, “King of Kings of Kings”). God, it was clear, could be compared to a king. Human kings, it was also clear, couldn’t hold a candle to the luminous eminence of the divine, despite what many of them claimed. God, like a king of old, was powerful. Like a king of old, God’s judgment and justice was meant to rule the land. God as king became part of every blessing and prayer we say (Baruch…melech ha’olam…, Blessed are You…King of the world…).
Unfortunately, metaphors can detract as well as add to our understanding. Because of the kings we encountered through history, we also began to think of God as isolated in the grandeur of the palace, and in order to meet with the king, we would have to navigate intricate bureaucracies. Whether through rigorous Torah study, disciplined prayer rituals, or impassioned meditative practices, the path to God often seemed reserved only for the elite few.
Shneur Zalman accepted this metaphor of God as King, and even acknowledged how it made God seem further away from us. But then he taught that in the lead up to Rosh Hashanah which centers God’s kingship more than any other time of the year, this month of Elul, God the King does something unexpected. HaMelech ba’sadeh. The King is in the field.
“It is comparable to a king who returns to the city, and when he passes through the fields on his way to the palace, anyone who wishes may get close and greet him as he passes through the fields. This is important, because once he is in his palace, entry is only possible to those with special permission. So too, during the month of Elul, all go out into the field to greet the King as he passes through.”
The King is in the field, the divine is present where you are.
I want to take Shneur Zalman’s invitation to re-imagine our relationship with God one step further. What is the “field” today? This is not a wild space, nor is it an urban space. It is a place of intentional cultivation that produces something nourishing. When it comes to matters of the spirit, the field is not raw nature, nor is it the highly developed centers of religious practice (sanctuary, prayer, theology, ritual). What happens if we understand the “field” as the secular arts, a place where we don’t normally expect to find God but where we do cultivate meaning, beauty, joy, and healing?
With that question in mind, I have put together an Elul playlist of secular songs that have moved me in 2022, and that in some way felt appropriate to the themes of this season. If you want to listen on Spotify, you can find the playlist here. Below is a list of the songs, with one lyric highlight. You may find other songs and lyrics that move you through Elul and the High Holidays – feel free to share with me or on the Kavana Facebook group!
On Taking Account and Making Amends
- Band of Horses, Warning Signs. “I don’t want help / I don’t want counseling / I won’t go to therapy / I won’t do anything.”
- The Sadies, All the Good. “When I search for answers / Questions are all I find / Wish I knew what I needed to do this time.”
- Sharon Van Etten, Mistakes. “Even when I make a mistake / It’s much better than that.”
- Stars, I Need the Light. “We’re gonna work it till we wake up with the truth here.”
On Big Questions & Spiritual Connection
- Calexico, Harness the Wind. “Are we just falling stars / Dancing across the sky?”
- Angel Olsen, Through the Fires. “And walk through the fires / Of all earthly desires / And let go of the pain / That obstructs you from higher.”
- Aurora, Everything Matters. “You’re part of the dawn where the light comes from the dark / You’re a part of the morning and everything matters / And we are, an atom and a star / You’re a part of the movement and everything matters (to me).”
On Generosity and Self-Care
- Laura Veirs, Seaside Haiku. “Give but don’t give too much / Of yourself away.”
About Relationships, Love, Grief, Time Passing
- The Whitmore Sisters, Friends We Leave Behind. “The friends we leave behind / It’s what defines us / How many will there be / When we’re gone?”
- Kevin Morby & Erin Rae, Bittersweet, TN. “And there was no time, suddenly”.
A Taste of Sukkot & Ecclesiastes (A Time for Everything)
- Regina Spektor, What Might Have Been. “Living and dying go together / Business and crying go together / Passion and madness go together / Yellow and sadness go together.”