A Shakespearean Reflection on Elul

The moment of judgment approaches. The Sovereign, rather than prepare and mount a magisterial vantage point, slips out of the royal precincts to be among the loyal subjects in the field as they gather themselves to face the possibility of life or death.  

Up to this point, this description would fit the scene which begins Act IV of Shakespeare’s King Henry V when, the night before sending his men to war against the French, the young King disguises himself to gain an understanding of his soldier’s minds. Perhaps, though, this description might resonate with a different tradition altogether: the teaching that the month of Elul, the time immediately preceding Rosh Hashana, the Holy One, is compared to a King who leaves the well-guarded palace to walk in the field among the people. The purpose of the Sovereign of the Universe, however, is not to secretly discover our minds but to openly be close to us. 

Henry ends up hearing words that are difficult for him. The soldiers, thinking they are addressing a peer, insult the King and trenchantly argue that the carnage to come, the lost lives and limbs, may be put on the King’s ledger and blamed on his eagerness to go to war.  

While he pushes back against this unknowingly flagrant disrespect against the Crown, Henry’s real response comes in a soliloquy in which he concedes that he, in fact, possesses no greatness above any commoner except for his ceremonial trappings of power.  He laments that these adornments won’t be any comfort for him in his burden of putting his people’s need for a leader over his own desire to live life on his own terms.  

Ultimately, The Sovereign of the Universe, of course, has need neither for such comeuppance nor resolve to stay the course. Still, Henry’s words have an unexpected resonance for thinking about Elul: 

I am a king that find thee, and I know

’Tis not the balm, the scepter, and the ball,

The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,

The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,

The farcèd title running ’fore the King,

The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp

That beats upon the high shore of this world;

The King of flesh and blood is trapped in his station, unable to escape the need to carry himself above others for the sake of being able to lead. The Sovereign of Sovereigns is never forced to play that role, even though G*d wields immeasurable power at will and is held with infinitely higher regard. 

The King of flesh and blood is not really surprised at the dispiritedness of his men but sobered by it, knowing that they would never speak their words to his face were he not hidden. The Sovereign of Sovereigns wants us to share our inner thoughts as if G*d didn’t know them already.  Rather than being guarded or disguised, G*d walks openly to us, as it were, and waves us over to speak face to face, to share our fears and joys, prayers and pleas, doubts as well as faith. 

Free of all burdens, even those normally on the head of the one who wears the crown, G*d can help us leave ours aside as well.

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