Why, on the Shabbat that falls during the week of Sukkot do Ashkenazi Jews have a tradition of reading Kohelet (Ecclesiastes)?  Sukkot is zman simchateinu, the time of our joy, and we read a book that tells us that life is meaningless and then we die! Kohelet tells us that our goodness is no determiner of whether we will suffer or prosper, that wealth is pointless because we will eventually die and lose use of it, and that nothing lasts forever anyway. Wisdom, says Kohelet, is equally impermanent and therefore just as pointless!  

This is what we read during the “time of our joy?”  

It is true that both Kohelet and Sukkot share a theme of impermanence. We leave our permanent home and live in our temporary home. The only shelter is the schach, the branches over our head, that are not even enough to protect us from the rain. This inadequate shelter is reminiscent of the “clouds of glory,” the Divine presence that sheltered ancient Israel as they wandered between slavery in Egypt and resettlement in their land. Kohelet tells us Whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might. For there is no action, no reasoning, no learning, no wisdom in Sheol (the underworld) where you are going (9:10).”  

But what Kohelet tells us in regard to impermanence, that we should enjoy what we can while we can because eventually, it will all disappear, seems bleak and cynical in contrast to the serene acceptance of life’s impermanence in light of the presence of God at the root of everything! The sukkah, with its simple branches and leaves for a roof, is a symbol of the sublime. Kohelet, saying “all is vanity” seems to mock any sense of the sublime.  

But as we read Kohelet, we see a shift from a bitter refusal to take pleasure in the world to an exhortation to imbibe happiness from every source. In the middle of the book, he says “All of mans earning is for the sake of his mouth, yet his gullet is not sated. is the feasting of the eyes more important than the pursuit of desire? That, too, is futility and pursuit of wind (6:7-9).” 

It is the final verses of Kohelet that suggest to us that while it is good to take as much happiness and pleasure from the world while we can, and that a time will come when we will no longer be able to, this is beside the point of life. The book ends with a simple statement: The sum of the matter, when all is said and done, revere God and observe Gods commandments, for this is for all humanity. (12:13) We are told here not to place much importance on anything worldly, including knowledge and wisdom. Rather, we should live, not with nihilism, but with reverence for what underlies everything worldly! We are told to live with that reverence not because it will bring us happiness, wealth, or because it will protect us from anything bad happening to us, but because “that is for all humanity.” Nothing can matter but that which underlies everything.  

This is the meaning of the “clouds of glory” giving us shelter when we were stateless wanderers, and why we leave our permanent dwellings and move into temporary ones. This is why we read Kohelet during zman simchateinu.  

Shabbat shalom, and chag sameach! 

Comments are closed.


Visit the
Shaarey Tphiloh Facebook Page

ST Facebook image link

Upcoming Events