Tis the season for…repentance. That doesn’t exactly make for a great Hallmark Greeting card, but this past week we finally entered the auspicious month of Elul. This is a time of serious reflection and spiritual stock-taking. During this month we prepare for Rosh Hashana, the day on which we crown G-d as our king anew each year. During the month of Elul, we analyze our deeds of the past year. We reflect back on the mitzvahs we have done, recall our misdeeds, and resolve to improve in areas in which we are lacking. It is not a time for anxiety or depression (G-d forbid!), but rather one of somber introspection.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Shoftim, G-d tells the Jewish people that they should appoint a Jewish king after they conquer the land of Israel, saying “You shall surely set over yourself a king whom the L-rd, your G-d, shall choose…”(Devarim/Deuteronomy 17:15). Yet later in Jewish history, when the Jewish people ask the prophet, Samuel, to appoint a Jewish king over them he is displeased with their request, (I Samuel 8:6). G-d too isn’t pleased, going as far as to say, “They have rejected me.” This raises an obvious question. If appointing a Jewish king is not only a not a bad thing to do, but an actual mitzvah commanded in the Torah, why were G-d and his prophet, Samuel so bummed out about the Jewish people’s desire for a king?
Chassidus explains that ideally a Jew’s natural fear of G-d would be so strong that an earthly king would be unnecessary. If we were to operate at such a level, we would not need anyone but G-d alone to rule over us. There are two levels of fear or awe of G-d. The lowest level is a basic fear of being punished. The higher level is a desire to serve G-d that comes from a sense of His awe and majesty. However, the Jewish people requested a “king who will rule over us similar to all the other nations.” In other words, the Jewish people needed an enforcer of law and order to keep society from becoming lawless and immoral. They needed a government that would set up laws to deter people from going against G-d’s will. Rather than serving G-d out of a natural appreciation of His majesty, they needed the fear of an immediately apparent earthly punishment to whip them into shape and keep them in line. It was disappointment in the Jewish people for having only reached the lower level of fear and not the higher level that was behind G-d and Samuel’s unhappy responses.
In Shoftim we also read the injunction, “You shall be whole[hearted] with the L-rd your G-d” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 18:13). Rashi explains that this is telling us to trust in G-d for what He has in store for our lives. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch approaches this verse from another angle. He writes that a person’s entire being should be devoted to G-d, including in all his or her relationships. This wholeness, he explains, is the direct result of our awareness of G-d’s unity. It is the realization of our vocation as a nation belonging exclusively to G-d.
During this Elul we should all merit to come to greater awareness of G-d’s unity. This awareness should permeate every sphere of our lives from the synagogue to the workplace to the home. The sages teach us that today our ‘kings’ are our rabbis and teachers who strengthen us in serving G-d. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that there are always individuals who possess a greater love and fear of G-d than we do. It is such people that we should make our teachers.