On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Parsha Shoftim – The King is in the Field

In the Hebrew month of Elul, Chassidim have the custom of saying that “the King is in the Field.”  As the analogy goes, when wants to have a meeting with the King, they need to call the right people and go through background checks and a series of his subordinates before the King’s officials will even consider letting the person see the King.  However, once a year, the King leaves his palace and takes a tour of his kingdom.  As he’s going from town to town and field to field anyone can approach the king with any matter without going through all of the preparation and protocols as the rest of the year.

Normally, when we want to pray to G-d, we also need to go through a whole procedure.  We need to spiritually prepare ourselves, dress appropriately, go to the minyan on time, say all of the prayers, pronounce all the words correctly, enunciate them loud enough so we can hear ourselves, have the proper intention… the list goes on and on.  It’s no easy task.  In Elul, things are different.  G-d is somehow more accessible to us. 

There are two ways to look at this… 

One way is do what we’ve done all year.  After all, if G-d will hear our prayers without jumping through all the hoops, why jump through them?  We can just do our normal routine, which isn’t always so great, and G-d will hear us.  The main focus with this approach is to make sure that we’re praying to G-d sincerely.  In Elul, as long as we pray with proper intention, G-d will hear our prayers.  That being said, calling out to G-d sincerely is no so easy.

The second possibility is that if G-d is in the field and somehow closer to us, we need to step up our game.  When the boss is away, decent workers will work at a reasonable level, but when the boss is in the room, the worker steps up his game big time.  As we said before, there are a lot of rules that surround how to pray and conduct oneself properly as a Jew.  Using this approach, we should try to strengthen all aspects of our Judaism, particularly the ones surrounding prayer.

I’m going to focus on the second possibility.  Here’s where our parsha comes.  It starts out with the words Shofitm vshotrim teten l’cha (Judges and officers shall you appoint.)  The Middrash has many explanations for what this means.  As a preparation for Rosh Hashanah, it’s also been said about Elul that it’s the opportune time to take a spiritual accounting of one’s conduct over the past year and make resolutions for improvement next year.  The initial words of our parsha could mean that we’re to judge ourselves on our conduct and appoint officers or methods of guarding ourselves against any of last year’s pitfalls in the hopes of avoiding them in the future.  While this is a nice idea it can be both difficult and scary.  I may be an observant person, but I’m no tzadik.  I’ve made plenty of mistakes and even though I know that I can do better, I’m not sure if it’s good enough.  My yeitzer harah (evil inclination) is one tough cookie.

Chapter 20, verse 1 tells us that “When you go out to battle against your enemy… you shall not fear…”  It then tells us in verse 8 that on the battlefield, the priests announce “who is fearful and fainthearted?  Let him go return to his house…”  The verses seem to say that on one hand, G-d is commanding us not to be afraid.  On the other hand he’s giving us a way out if we are.  I would propose an alternative explanation that “the enemy” that the verse speaks of us is our own evil inclination.  Also, when the Torah says “return” to his house, the Hebrew word that is used is  V’Yashov which has the same root as teshuva.  

If we insert these explanations the verses can be read: When you go out to battle against your evil inclination, don’t be afraid.  But… if anyone is fearful, let him do teshuva and return to my house.

In the last lines of the HafTorah, Isaiah sums it up beautifully “Hashem shall go before you and the G-d of Israel shall be at your rear guard.”

It doesn’t matter so much how we strengthen our relationship with Hashem.  He’s with us when we’re strong.  He’s with us when we’re scared.  He’s with us when we pull it all together and do a good job serving him.  He’s even with us when we screw up.  Our job is to recognize that he’s with us every step of the way. 

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