‘The king is in the field’

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 27 August 2023

On our trip to Westminster Abbey at the beginning of August, those of us who joined saw a picture of the Abbey as it was being prepared for the late Queen’s coronation in 1953. They constructed a train track that ran into the abbey itself in order to transport in all the materials they needed to construct eight thousand seats to accommodate those who were attending inside the Abbey. Thousands more lined the route of the procession to and from the Abbey.

There are those here who lined the streets for that coronation, and I’m sure there are those who were present earlier this year for the crowning of King Charles – maybe not in the Abbey itself, but on the streets, clustered around our TVs to get a glimpse of the magnificent occasion. This time round, we were told by our brilliant guide, they stuck to the more conservative number of seats in the Abbey – at around two thousand. We were able to see just a small, preserved corner of the yellow carpet from the specially-built platform that was constructed so that everyone inside the Abbey would be able to see the moment of crowning.

The coronation of a British monarch is not just a magnificent spectacle. It is also a moment in which the monarch is reminded of the responsibility that comes with the privileges of dominion. In his coronation oath, King Charles placed his hand on a bible and said: ‘The things which I have here before promised, I will perform and keep. So help me God.’

For many, if not most of us, the coronation of a British monarch will be a once (maybe twice) in a lifetime event. Something that many of us will have felt compelled to watch and experience, if only because we might never see the like of it again. Personally, I didn’t watch. I knew there was a more important coronation that I could be present at and experience up-close – one that I go to every year.

We are preparing for Rosh Hashanah, on which we sing: HaMelech yosheiv al kisei ram v’nissa – ‘the king sits upon a throne high and transcendent’. Rosh Hashanah is when God sits upon the divine thrown and is crowned.

According to the ancient rabbis, the present month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah is a time in which ‘the king is in the field’. Many of us have moved away from the imagery of God as male, so maybe we should reconceive this image as the king/queen in the field, the monarch in the field, or the sovereign in the field. But let me stick with the image of the king for just a moment.

Before his coronation at Rosh Hashanah, the king, God, goes out into the field. The king, who is usually cossetted away in his palace, once a year takes a stroll into the field, to walk among his people. Imagine being a labourer in the field, going about your usual business, the same daily drudgery that occupies your life, and suddenly you get a tap on the shoulder, and you look up into the face of the king. Suddenly you have this unique opportunity to stand in the presence of power and holiness. This time, once a year, is your opportunity to experience that which is usually remote and inaccessible.

At the same time, throughout this month of Elul, we are supposed to recite Psalm 27 – from which we sang earlier in the service verse 4: ‘One thing I ask of the Eternal: to live in the house of the Eternal all the days of my life.’ In other words, rather than the king being in the field, we are asking to be in the royal palace. We want to dwell with God and alongside God’s majesty – that God may take us up from the field of ordinary life into God’s palace.

That is how the ancient rabbis conceived of this time of year – a chance to step outside of our usual routine and come closer to God and divinity.

We also hope that, like King Charles, at Rosh Hashanah God might also be reminded of God’s responsibility towards us. In Avinu Malkeinu, ‘Our Parent, our Sovereign’ we make a number of petitions to God, reminding God that ain banu ma’asim we lack good deeds, and we rely upon God to help us.

The name of the month of Elul – the letters alef-lamed-vav-lamed are said to spell out the phrase from the Song of Songs: Ani l’dodi v’dodi li – ‘I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine’. This is usually understood to be a reference to God and Israel – we are God’s beloved and God is ours. Thus, Elul is a time that is ripe for weddings (and we have three weddings in our community this weekend). But it is also a time for reconnecting more generally – with those around us, with God (if we believe God is something we can connect with), and with ourselves.

Because while some of us may be comfortable with God as sovereign – God as king, queen, monarch – others find any of those images difficult – with the idea that God is some powerful transcendent figure above us. For many, God is something that is internal. Many may not want even to call that force God at all. For those amongst us who want to move away from the idea of a kingly God, what sense does it make for us to say that in Elul ‘the king is in the field’?

In order for such an idea to make sense, sovereignty has to be internalised; the idea of divinity itself needs to be turned on its head. In preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we need to reconnect with ourselves and with our power – with our ability to take control of our own lives. To be ourselves the sovereign in our field.

So often we can feel powerless over our own lives, buffeted by the slings and arrows of fortune, not seeing how we can influence the world around us.

Like King Charles, at the coronation at Rosh Hashanah, we are reminded of our responsibility for the world around us and those who live in it. We are reminded that we do have the capacity, however small, to make the world a better place.

So, as you receive your High Holy Day tickets next week, consider yourself invited to God’s coronation. Whoever you are, wherever you are, you are more than welcome. Feel free to approach God in the field, to ask your questions, to seek your truth. This is also an invitation to us to be the sovereigns of our own fields, to take control of our lives. To remember that we are powerful, to remind us of our responsibility to do good in the world.

Shabbat Shalom