The Talmud tells a story about Rebbi Chanina Ben Dosa who traveled to Rebbi Yochanan Ben Zakai to learn Torah, when the latter’s son became ill. Rebbi Yochanan said, “Chanina, my son, pray for him and he will live. [Rebbe Chanina] put his head between his knees and begged for mercy on the child – and he lived. Rebbe Yochanan Ben Zakai then said ‘Even if Ben Zakai would put his head between his knees all day long, they wouldn’t pay any attention to him’. [Rebbe Yochanan’s] wife [heard this and] said to him, ‘So Is Chanina greater than you’? He answered her, ‘No. But he is like an attendant of the King and I’m like an officer of the King'”. (Berachos 34b)
What’s the difference between an attendant and an officer? Rashi explains that the attendant is a fixture in the home of the King. He’s not high in ranking but he goes in and out as he pleases, without permission. Whereas the officer is of a higher class but isn’t often around the King.
In Torah 6 Rebbe Nachman advises that in order to come back to God, we need to become skilled at entering and leaving. Just like a soldier, we need to know when is a good time to advance and when is a good time to retreat. Sometimes we’re in a higher emotional state and we need to ‘run with it’. Other times, when we have lower feelings, we can’t advance but we need to be clever and hold on to what we have without losing too much.
Maybe this is what was so great about Rebbi Chanina Ben Dosa. The Talmud describes in a few places his unmatched ability to perform miracles through his prayers. But it seems that he wasn’t the greatest scholar or the most pious. He was just the best at praying. Why? Because he was in and out of the King’s chambers all the time. Does that mean that he was always in an uplifted state of mind? No! That isn’t possible. But when he felt good, he pushed himself in front of the King. And when he felt low, he called out to the King.
That’s the meaning of the famous allusion to the month of Elul in the verse “אני לדודי ודודי לי” (I’m for my lover and my lover is for me – Song of Songs 6). Sometimes I’m for my lover. I’m feeling great and I’m ‘giving’ to this relationship. But other times, when I’m too broken to give, my lover is for me. He is picking up the slack and He’s overcompensating to help me. The best relationships are the ones that are balanced and reciprocal.
The Baal Hatanya compared this month of Elul to when the King leaves his palace and is in the field. That means He makes Himself available more now. Every one of us can become more familiar this month with the King, before his imminent coronation. Of course we can always come back to God, but there are certainly more auspicious times and now is one of them. Now we can be more of an attendant to the King just because it’s that time of year. We can go in and out of His chambers at our leisure. Most of us fear that we’ve been gone for so long that He’s probably upset at us. How can we have the chutzpah to call out to Him now, when we need Him most? But really the opposite is true. He makes Himself more available now. He’s longing to reconnect. He just wants us back!