TIME OF OUR JOY?
Rabbi David Walk
Sukkot is known as zman simchateinu or the time of our joy in rabbinic literature. And there's a lot of truth in that assessment. After all this is the harvest festival, and since historically most people were farmers this was the season of their greatest joy. Nowadays, even though few of us are farmers we still find this the most joyous of festivals. This may be because of the relief we feel after the ordeal of the Days of Awe, or it could be that our kids have gone back to school. Of course that last one doesn't work for me as a teacher. Some might just enjoy the meals taken in the pleasant confines of our sukkah. However, for me it's always the memories of sitting in the sukkah of my youth. It was during Sukkot that I began feeling my connection to Judaism. Those memories of becoming a traditional Jew are strongest while relaxing in the shade of my sukkah. The Jewish nation may have accepted the Torah on Shavuot, but for me it was on Sukkot, and I relive that experience every year.
It seems that all of God's Creation collaborates to make this the finest week of the year. The only exceptions are those pesky bees. So, why would anyone want to disturb the pure bliss of Sukkot? Well, it does appear that our Sages are just such curmudgeons. They decided to have us read Kohelet or Ecclesiastes on the Shabbat of Chol Hamoed Sukkot. What a bummer! Now for my gentle readers who have never paid attention to this text as it is speedily chanted in our houses of worship, and I'm sure there are many such individuals out there, perhaps you should stop reading at this point and continue to dwell in your idyllic inattention. But for the rest of us, I will attempt to deal with this problem.
What is the essence of this cantankerous text? 'What does anyone gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:3)?' 'The dead are better off than the living (4:2).' 'For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten (9:5).' 'Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, "I find no pleasure in them"(12:1).' And for those who haven't gotten the message yet: "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Preacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."(1:2).'
This is very depressing material! So, why do the Sages have us teach it? Actually, the Talmud (Shabbat 30b) states that, at first, the sages wished to hide the work (i.e. they refused to endow it with the sanctity of sacred Scripture) because some of its statements contradict the Torah and are even self contradictory. Eventually, however, the book was accepted as a biblical book on the grounds that it begins and ends with 'the fear of heaven.' In other words, for all the book's skepticism and pessimism about the human condition, the teaching which shines through is: "Fear God and keep His commandments" (12: 13).
But in case it's an odd choice of text for our most joyful festival. Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe explains in his Levush ( Orah Hayyim 663:2) published in Poland in 1590-1604 that we read Kohelet on Sukkot "because it is zeman simhateinu , (the season of our rejoicing) and Kohelet urges people to rejoice in their portion and not run after increased wealth. A person who enjoys what he has, it is a gift from God". Others suggest that too much joy and celebration brings us to light headedness and frivolity, and Kohelet brings us back to a more balanced approach to life. Perhaps we read a book which talks so much of death before the coming winter season which resembles the onset of mortality.
However, I'd like to suggest a different point of view based on the word hevel. This enigmatic word appears many times in Kohelet, and I translated it above as 'meaningless.' It's also been translated as: futility, pointlessness, and, the most popular, vanity. None of those are the real meaning. It really means 'breath' or 'vapor'. Go out on cold winter's morn and see your breath; that's hevel. So, perhaps, the best translation would be 'fleeting.'
Now I believe that we can begin to understand the Preacher's point. Life is fleeting and so are its joys. If our only goal is to enjoy these ephemeral pleasures, then life would indeed be a terrible waste. But we know that going to the house of mourning is greater than going to the place of celebration, because we take a longer perspective. We're like this quote from Soren Kierkegaard who once wrote: "It takes moral courage to grieve; it takes religious courage to rejoice." The true joy comes from understanding a greater truth: Our importance derives from our place in an eternal chain of tradition.
All the promises God gave to our ancestors were for their future progeny. Avraham never saw the fulfillment of the Covenant between the Parts; Moshe never saw the Promised Land; Isaiah never saw the return he predicted. Now we can understand the haftorah for the first day of Sukkot. We read about the future redemption of the Jewish people. Our joy is related to our faith in the destiny of Israel.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said that Kohelet is a meditation on mortality. And that's true. While we sit in our fragile hut, we sense our role in this great saga. We rejoice in the faith that God provides us with what we need to carry on this mission. We're not rejoicing in what we have harvested and garnered, but in God's sustaining us to come one step closer to the fulfillment of our ancestor's dreams. We celebrate the image of our grandchildren living our grandparents' dream. Maybe, that's what it means to be Jewish, and it makes us happy.