Friday, September 29, 2023 / 14 Tishrei 5784

Shalom Chaverim!

Long ago, the existentialist Biblical poet Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) stared life in the eyes and declared at the start of his book:

הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֭ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל

Hevel ha-hevelim, ha-col hevel…

Futility of futile, all is futile

Encouraging, isn’t he?!

You could also translate it more spiritually and “Eastern” as “Emptiness of emptiness, everything is empty”; Or more “Western” and psychological as “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

The tradition is for us Jews to read Kohelet on the Shabbat during Sukkot, which is tomorrow. (We’ll do that here at Temple Sinai at kiddush lunch – please join us!)

But what I want to point out is that this is where Kohelet begins his book. He writes 12 more chapters. Do these further chapters take us anywhere else?

He writes:

“All streams flow into the sea, Yet the sea is never full; To the place [from] which they flow, the streams flow back again. All such things are wearisome: No one can ever state them; The eye never has enough of seeing, Nor the ear enough of hearing. Only that shall happen which has already happened, only that shall occur which has already occurred: There is nothing new under the sun!”

Sounds like there’s nowhere to go with this Kohelet, that his thoughts won’t lead us anywhere beyond where we already are!

…and yet:

We read these words at Sukkot, the most existential holiday on the Jewish calendar (and maybe the most existential of any calendar in the world)! This is the holiday to simply “be” – to fully be…where you are already.

So, for example:

True, to describe the hydrological cycle of the globe, as Kohelet does, is a tiresome description of the infinite unending: “All streams flow into the sea, Yet the sea is never full; To the place [from] which they flow, the streams flow back again.”

But the experience of that hydrological cycle is the canyons carved by the floods and the sands spread by the waves. It’s a refreshing drink from a stream or even a gulp at the kitchen faucet; a swim, the drama of a storm and the smell of just-after-rain; It’s the two-thirds of our bodies going through life to enable every laugh, cry, kiss, sigh, and rejoicing at seeing that same old sun rise again for another day and set over that full/never-full sea once again.

The goal of Sukkot when we read this book by Kohelet is simply to sit in the Sukkah. To enjoy food and the company of friends and family; To admire the beauty of nature all around with full awareness of the impermanence of it all; To appreciate; To be at home wherever you are in the world and with your life even when – especially when – recognizing that it is all transitory…

…And with all that, to be “nothing but happy”; “nothing but joyous” (which is how the Torah describes what observing this holiday is all about in Devarim 16:15).

Shabbat on Sukkot should be the single most joyous day of the year!


Rabbi Michael