Going out into the Field of Elul has a very different quality from going out into the field of springtime, as is expressed so beautifully in the Song of Songs.
When the Winter passes, the desire to go out into the field is nearly unavoidable: the field is full of flowers, its smells and its riot of colors – it calls to us to arise and go:
“Rise up, my beloved, my fair one, and go forth. For behold, the winter is past … The blossoms have appeared on the land … The fig tree has produced its green figs, and the grapevines’ flowers give out their fragrance; arise my beloved, my fair one, and go forth.” (Song of Songs, 2:11-13)
These blossoms with their intoxicating perfumes encourage us to leave our comfort zones, our definitions, and join in the riotous celebration in the field of springtime, with its great promise ripening in the furrows: the barley and the wheat that will be harvested and piled up, and the fruit ripening in the orchards. It is indeed time to go out into the field.
In the Autumn, however, the field has changed. It has fainted, dried up from the exhausting heat and drought of the summer. It is a field filled with a fermenting stench of summer thorns instead of the intoxicating perfume of the grapevines. It is dusty and abandoned, maybe even swarming with snakes and scorpions. It is a field that waits to be plowed.
The call to go out to the field in Elul is a challenge, not as obvious as spring. This call comes when it is more natural to stay at home, in the shade, protected from the heat of the summer, the heat that is reaching its peak. This is why the Sages warned: Shilhei kayta kashya mikayta The end of summer is harder than summer itself. Nevertheless, we are called to go out into the unpromising field at this moment: into the heat, the dust, to the thorns and brambles, to the stubble of the field – and to make an effort to find signs of change: the pillar of the Hatzav, the squill, waving its white flag of surrender, the beach lilies with their white goblets “a white sail on the horizon”, the columns of ants, busy with their patient work of collecting seeds, all kinds of unnoticed preparations, unheard sounds of grain being gathered underground. When the first rains fall, it will sprout and appear again, in its fiercest green. Even the fallow fields, having already been harvested, are expecting the plow and the seeding of autumn: “The time to seed with tears has come” writes Yankele Rothblit, who so perceptively describes the secret trembling of the end of summer, the expectation that hangs in the air:
You return with the end of summer/ the squill waves its white flags of surrender/ a harvest of sadness in your eyes/ comes with the time to plant in tears/ and the songs of homeland thunder/ a hidden string draws out its sounds/ please don’t go, sweet migrating bird/ welcome back, welcome back (Ya’akov Rothblit, You return with the Autumn.
At the heart of the journey into the field of Elul stands the ability to see things hidden from sight: the potential, the inchoate promise within the heavy clods of earth, scorched by the sun, that do not reveal to a cursory glance their ability to support the sprouting of new life.
Inside these clods, “the promise of the wind” hides from the coming rain, as Itamar Prat writes in his poem: “and there is no more stem dreaming of its seeds/ and there are no more vows nor prohibitions/ just the promise of the wind that the rain will fall in its season to grace the soil at the end of Tishrei.” (Itamar Prat, Asif)
The invitation to go out into the fields in Elul is an invitation to shake off the dust that has settled over the summer, dust that has covered the soul. The soul, like each of us, seeking shelter from the exhausting heat of the summer, the heat of habit, of forgetfulness, of arrogance.
Translated into English by Rabbi Simcha Daniel Burstyn