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Rabbi Eitan Webb

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King James and Rosh Hashanah

Posted: 09/11/2012 1:38 pm

After James the First assumed the throne of England in 1603, he took a leisurely journey from Edinburgh to London, stopping frequently along the way to meet with the townsfolk as he passed through.

According to Google Maps, this should have taken 130 hours by foot, making it a journey of about a week with little physical exertion. I am going to go out on a limb here and presume that King James had a horse. Yet it took him from April 5 until May 7, just over a month, until he arrived in London for his coronation. Traveling at a snail's pace, the king made himself available to spend time with whoever was interested in having a word with him. Through that whole period, he did not wear a crown.

His campaign strategy paid off. When he arrived in London, a large crowd assembled to greet him with a warm welcome.

Of course, then he had to go off to the palace and run the affairs of the country. I will let the historians judge his successes in that regard.

Watching the election season unfold, and with the Democratic and Republican conventions now behind us, I kept on coming back to this thought. Here you have the President of the United States and a former Governor, two very busy men, spending outsized amounts of time meeting with individuals across the country and listening to the issues which concern them.

In theory, one or the other could win without conventions, debates, or meetings with anyone but their closest staff members. If that happened though, it would be a great disservice to our country. We need to interact occasionally with those who would run our affairs and present our concerns directly to them. It connects us to them, and it connects them to us.

The Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, tells us that in the month preceding the High Holy Days -- Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur -- we are encouraged to conceive of G-d as a king in the field. This degree of accessibility, and eagerness to hear from his people, is in one sense the closest that we can come to our Father in Heaven, our King. The Hebrew month of Elul is G-d's campaign season.

Yet when meeting our kingly candidate, we act somewhat restrained. We blow the Shofar, a ram's horn, to announce His arrival, and we recite a special section of psalms each day. But there is a sharp contrast between these activities and our observances on Rosh Hashanah:

On Rosh Hashanah, the Shofar service is the high point, after numerous preparatory prayers, and continues as the theme of the day. During Elul, the Shofar is almost an afterthought, blasted briefly at the end of the service as people are preparing to leave.

On Rosh Hashanah we take two days off from work, spend long hours in the synagogue, dress up in our holiday best, and feast on the famous apples and honey. During Elul, we rush off to work immediately following the service.

It is our restraint during Elul that prepares us for the new year of G-d's governance. Unlike the grand attire one might wear when meeting a presidential candidate, we gather in our regular work clothing, presenting ourselves simply, as we truly are. Because it is precisely the act of seeking connections to G-d while engaging in the physical mundaneness of day-to-day life -- meeting the King in our field -- which enables us to then enter the High Holidays as informed and committed voters. That is, if Elul is campaign season, then Rosh Hashanah is Election Day.

Now, you might argue that it can't be a real election if there isn't a second party. And whom would G-d run against? I believe the answer to that is G-d will continue to run the world irrespective of our desire. But as beings with free will, He can be our King only by virtue of our desire. The Alter Rebbe relates this to a verse in Solomon's song: "I am to my beloved, and his desire is toward me." He suggests that the second half of this verse is a practical outcome of the first half: I, the human, am to my beloved, to G-d, would refer to the days of Elul, in which the individual seeks to arouse the love and attention of his beloved.

Then on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, G-d responds according to the second half of the verse: "and his desire is toward me."

This has two possible meanings. One is that our seeking G-d arouses within Him a love for us and therefore a response. Another is that because G-d already loves His creations, our seeking Him merely causes a revelation of that innate love. Either way, on Rosh Hashanah we acknowledge the strength of our connection with G-d, the degree to which we "feel the love." We choose whether to establish G-d as OUR King, not just as the ruler of the world. And for that, He needs our vote.

Here's to a meaningful Elul and a successful Election Day.

 
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