During Sukkot there is a custom within the Jewish community to read the book of Ecclesiastes, also known as (and henceforth in this article) “Kohelet.”
The themes of life and our interaction with material pleasure presented by Kohelet seem out of place for the joyous holiday of Sukkot. Sukkot is a time when we leave our houses and embrace the outdoors and host guests in our temporary homes for festive meals. Sukkot is called in the Torah, “The time of rejoicing.” As such, the holiday carries a joyous tone. Yet, the book that we read during this time of rejoicing presents us with what seems like a rather dismal philosophy on life.
The opening segment of the book leads us to the conclusion that life is entirely pointless:
The words of Kohelet, son of David, king in Jerusalem. Everything is pointless, like a fleeting vapor, everything is pointless, says Kohelet. What benefit does a man’s toil and hardship under the sun bring him? Generations come and go but the earth remains forever. (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2, translation my own)
Here the author indicates that a person’s work and strivings are entirely meaningless. As if that’s not enough, the book seems to empty nature of meaning, presenting us with a vision of nature that is itself a meaningless cycle of repetition:
The sun rises and then goes back to set in the place from whence it came. The wind goes south then turns north; round and round does the wind turns on itself. All streams run to the ocean but the ocean is never filled; from the place the streams came, there they return. A person is not able to speak of all these exhausting things; the eye is never satisfied with what it sees, and the ear is never filled with what it hears. What was, will be and what has happened will happen, and there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:5-9, translation my own)
Kohelet goes on to write about how he pursued every passion on earth and found it meaningless. Large castles, orchards, maids, pools, and monetary treasures were not enough to bring him satisfaction. Yet, despite his bleak portrayal of life, Kohelet nevertheless enjoins his readers to enjoy life and take full advantage of temporal things.
Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10 ESV)
The custom to read Kohelet during Sukkot should give us a clue to its true meaning. Does Kohelet really present us with a philosophy of life akin to Nietzsche? Or does the book hold a deeper meaning? One that forces us to rethink our approach to life while still embracing a meaningful life.
The sages carefully looked at clues from the book to understand it’s true intentions.
A phrase that is used constantly in Kohelet that gives us a clue to its true meaning is, “under the sun.” The sages took this as a clue that there is more to the message of Kohelet than meets the eye. They understood this phrase to mean that we are dealing with life in this world as compared to the life of the World to Come.
What Kohelet shows us is not that life itself or the pursuit of happiness is meaningless, but that the pursuit of pleasure simply for the sake of it is a vanity like chasing the wind. What we should strive for is not the fleeting and temporal but the eternal; we can use this life and our toil here as means to bring us to the eternal. What Kohelet does is show us that the material nature of this world lacks meaning when compared to the eternal nature of the World to Come. Meaning is not found in the temporal but in the eternal.
We love our cars, food, houses, and toys. Yet, Kohelet snatches them from our hands and flips them inside out to reveal their guts. By doing this he shows us that their essence is meaningless and that to pursue them for happiness for its own sake will lead to aimless wandering and depression.
Perhaps that is why we read Kohelet during Sukkot. Just as our sukkah is temporary and unstable, so too, the things of this world are fleeting. But the sukkah, while temporary, reminds us of and points us to the eternal nature of God and how he protects us.
During this time of Sukkot may we be filled with life and joy from the eternal things of God.