Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains the paradox of Elul with the following metaphor: The king's usual place is in the capital city, in the royal palace. Anyone wishing to approach the king must go through the appropriate channels in the palace bureaucracy and gain the approval of a succession of secretaries and ministers. He must journey to the capital and pass through the many gates, corridors and antechambers that lead to the throne room. His presentation must be meticulously prepared, and he must adhere to an exacting code of dress, speech and mannerism upon entering into the royal presence.
However, there are times when the king comes out to the fields outside the city. At such times, anyone can approach him; the king receives them all with a smiling face and a radiant countenance. The peasant behind his plow has access to the king in a manner unavailable to the highest ranking minister in the royal court when the king is in the palace.
The month of Elul, says Rabbi Schneur Zalman, is when the king is in the field.
Now, obviously, there is a great difference between Elul and Yom Kippur.
This concept can be illustrated by way of analogy: Before a king enters a city, its inhabitants go out to greet him and receive him in the field. At that time, anyone who so desires may go out and greet him. He receives them all pleasantly and shows a smiling countenance to all. As he proceeds to his city, they follow him. Afterwards, when he reaches his royal palace, one may only enter [his throne room] with permission — and this is granted only to the nation’s elite, to a select few.
[To explain the] analogy: In the month of Elul, [we establish a relationship with G‑d within the context of our mundane realities]. We go out to receive the light of His countenance in the field, so to speak, as it is written: “G‑d will cause His countenance to shine upon you.”
Likutei Torah, from a discourse of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi
Grant me the ability to be alone; may it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass - among all growing things and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer, to talk with the One to whom I belong. May I express there everything in my heart, and may all the foliage of the field - all grasses, trees, and plants - awake at my coming, to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer so that my prayer and speech are made whole through the life and spirit of all growing things, which are made as one by their transcendent Source. May I then pour out the words of my heart before your Presence like water, O L-rd, and lift up my hands to You in worship, on my behalf, and that of my children!
- A Prayer of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav