Torah | The king is in the field and on the campaign trail

Re’eh
Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17
Isaiah 66:1-24
1 Samuel 20:18 and 20:42

“See I put before you today the blessing and the curse” (Deut. 11:26). We expect a merciful God, the source of all good, to be kind and compassionate with us and bestow His blessings. So why would He want to send us curses?

Rabbi Isaiah Halevi Horowitz (1558-1628) — also known as “the holy Shelah” — writes that every Torah portion has a connection to the time of the year in which it is read. Re’eh, this week’s portion, coincides with the first day of the month of Elul, the month of preparation before the High Holy Days. We are now just 30 days from Rosh Hashanah. In fact, it is a custom to sound the shofar for the full month of Elul, to awaken us to the coming of Rosh Hashanah.

As to why we need a full month of preparation before Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad (1745-1812), explains the difference between the month of Elul and the High Holy Days with a parable.

It used to be the custom that once a year the king would leave his palace without his regular entourage of ministers and guards and travel to the countryside. There, the common folk were free to approach him and ask him for whatever they needed and share what was on their minds. The king would smile and pose with them and this would be an opportunity for anyone who wished to have an interaction with the king.

But then the king would return to his palace, and anyone who wished to see or have an audience with the king would need to make an appointment, receive security clearance, and only after months of waiting would they perhaps be granted a few moments.

Similarly, Rosh Hashanah is the time when we coronate God as king and ask for all our needs. We ask Him for a good and healthy year and to be inscribed in the Book of Life. But we do so with a completely different aura. With pomp and circumstance we sound the shofar, we go to shul for long hours, wear special clothing, eat symbolic foods such as honey for a sweet year. But for 30 days leading into the new year, the king of the universe is out in the field, where anyone who wishes to approach may do so casually, without any preparation or special protocol.

This imagery has increased resonance today; we live in an open democracy and have (thankfully) left behind the world of kings and queens. We are in an election year that has captured the attention of the country and the world for the spectacle that it has become. The similarities are quite striking between the campaign process and the old parable of the king.

As the candidates campaign it has been quite easy to get a photo op and a smile. Indeed, they specifically travel to pubs and restaurants to mingle with regular people, smile with them, listen to their everyday problems and champion themselves as one of them. But once elected into office, it is an exceedingly difficult task for those same regular folks to get a meeting in the Oval Office.

Thus, God puts before us the choice of blessings and curses. God has gifted us with the greatest blessing: by creating us in His image He gave us the gift of free choice. This gift allows all of our actions to have meaning and purpose — but there is a downside. The same gift that allows us independence and autonomy for good also allows us to choose evil and curses.

If blessings and good were the only choice available to us, we would not really be free; to choose good would be meaningless. This majestic gift of free choice imparts on us the divine quality of not being controlled or coerced by any circumstance — even though we humans can use that same gift to reject our creator and His laws.

Therefore, we have the month of Elul to decide what kind of relationship with God we want to have in the coming year. He’s with us out in the field, asking us to “choose life” (Deut 30:19), granting us our precious choice.

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at rabbizarchi@sfshul.org.

Shlomo Zarchi
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at rabbizarchi@sfshul.org.