I've been thinking about Princess Diana this week, of course, it being the 20th anniversary of her death, which those of us of a certain age remember in a "where were you when..." sort of way. Oren and I actually missed it. We were up at our friends' cabin in Covelo that Labor Day weekend. It was before we had cell phones, before internet. And we carried the peace of the weekend with us on the drive home by keeping the car radio off. We were living on Castro Street then, and our first realization that something was amiss was when we passed the B of A at 18th and Castro, where admirers had put up pictures and laid piles of flowers. The last time we had seen that display, so many queens mourning royalty, was seven years earlier at the death of Lucille Ball.
Like everyone else this week, I ask myself the question of the source of Diana's popularity. And I think one element of it had to do with accessibility. Maybe not actual accessibility, but imagined accessibility. In those moments of fantasy that I'm sure we all have when watching some British costume drama, it can be hard to imagine what one might say to Queen Elizabeth. In fact, it is hard to imagine the circumstance in which you would have the opportunity to say anything to Queen Elizabeth. You'd have to be landed gentry or a world-famous something-or-other to begin with, and the ship has probably sailed on both those possibilities.
But Princess Diana? You could imagine talking to her. You could imagine a crazy circumstance in which she appeared in your world. An unmarked motorcade pulling over to take in a view of the Pacific just as you're eating lunch in Bodega Bay, and she takes a fancy to having some fish and chips, and there you are together for a moment. You can imagine saying something to her about the view, or about the meal, or about how difficult a burden her celebrity must be. Not that this would happen, but you could imagine it. You would be thoughtful. You would be honest. And she would be honest back.
So what does this have to do with the month of Elul?
The month of Elul is a tender time, an eyt ratzon, as they say. It's a time of softening. Of gently stretching our soul's muscles. We are in the month leading to the Days of Awe. But we don't want to jump into the teshuvah of the High Holy Days without a warmup, any more than we would run a marathon without stretching our legs, without training up.
Elul is a time for softening our hearts; deepening our compassion – our compassion for others and for ourselves. Offering forgiveness and asking forgiveness. And feeling a special relaxed closeness to the Divine.
The Alter Rebbe, Shnur Zalman of Liadi, describes the experience this way: the King is in the field. He is referring to an ancient (or imagined) practice of monarchs periodically going out into the field to see what is growing, what is being planted and harvested in their name; to speak without protocol to the people who plant and till and reap. When the king is in the field, says the Alter Rebbe, the farmers can speak with him with more casualness than even the highest ministers and courtiers can do back at the palace. And they can, in plain language, ask for what they need.
And, says the Alter Rebbe, Elul is the time when God, imagined in this tradition as a king, is in the field and is most accessible. This comes as a great relief in our tradition, where so much prayer, where petition, is so often thoroughly proceduralized. Our prayers are set. They happen in a certain order. Some only in a group. Better in Hebrew. Some standing, some sitting, some bowing and bouncing back up. There is so much protocol to our traditional prayer, that it is nearly impossible for those not steeped in it to attempt it. We approach the Divine with the same complexity as we would having an audience with Queen Elizabeth: having to be scheduled and presenting ourselves at the right time and place, having to be announced, and then bowing properly and remembering to say "Your Majesty" the first time and "ma'am" every time after. And by the time we have made it through this trial, we can no longer remember what it is we had wanted to say, or we are too tongue-tied to say it.
But in Elul, we are no longer seeking audience in the palace. The royal comes to us. We are discussing tartar sauce with Princess Diana –– no, with Queen Elizabeth –– over fish and chips in Bodega Bay. And, being relieved at the absence of formalities, we – and she – can soon be sharing our hearts.
So for the remainder of this time leading to the High Holy Days, see if you can imagine that. The monarch in the field. The king, if your theology leans that way. Or the queen. The Goddess. The Spirit of this Earth. Or maybe instead, the part of you that is hard to reach, that holds itself separate and protected and unapproachable. Maybe it's that part of you that you need to address. Maybe in your imagining, that part of you can leave its palace, its fortress, and come to see what you're doing in the field. And in that relaxed moment, that eyt ratzon, with fields around you and the late afternoon sky overhead and no one else there to listen in, you and that part of you, can be honest and have true compassion on each other.
It's Elul. The king/queen/goddess/spirit/you is in the field. What will you say?