One of the commandments of Sukkot, given in Deuteronomy 16:14, is “[y]ou shall rejoice in your festival….” A few verses later, we read, “For the Lord your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.” These are uplifting words, and part of the reason Sukkot is my favorite holiday.
But I confess it is hard to reconcile the commandment to rejoice and the scriptural reading of Ecclesiastes, which is read aloud in synagogue this Shabbat. In fact, it is not even clear why we read Ecclesiastes on this day.
As first glance, Ecclesiastes appears to be the rant of a bitter old man. His name is Kohelet, and tradition teaches us that it is really King Solomon writing in his old age. He has clearly become cynical, and this cynicism is best expressed in the phrase “hevel havalim.” It is most often translated as “vanity of vanities,” but can also be rendered “utter futility!” There seems to be no joy in Ecclesiastes as the exasperated king declares, “There is nothing new under the sun!”
Why then do we read this book at such a festive time? It could just be a process of elimination. Ecclesiastes is one of five scrolls in the Hebrew Bible. The other four -Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, and Esther – each have strong thematic connections to four of our holidays (Passover, Shavuot, Tisha B’Av, and Purim, respectively). Ecclesiastes, without a strong holiday message, could have simply been assigned to the most important festival still lacking a scroll. But I don’t think the answer is that easy.
Another possibility is the fact that Ecclesiastes 11:2 reads, “Distribute portions to seven, or even to eight….” This could be an oblique reference to the fact that Sukkot itself is seven days long, but Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of assembly, is in some ways an extension of Sukkot. But this one verse does not a thematic connection make.
Sukkot is a festival that is linked to agriculture and the harvest. It presumes a bountiful harvest. But we know from experience that some harvests are better than others. Farmers have to rely on many factors completely beyond their control in order to survive. Sometimes they can think they have done everything right in terms of cultivating the fields, and they still may yield little or no produce. Such a result would no doubt have been devastating and left the empty-handed farmer as cynical as Kohelet, who writes, “If one watches the wind, he will never sow; and if one observes the clouds, he will never reap.” (11:4) Despite the lack of assurances in life, we must still invest our time and energy to succeed in any endeavor.
Another aspect of Sukkot is that it is meant to have us appreciate the things in life that are true and enduring. We have a strong tradition of welcoming guests into the sukkah. This includes ushpizin, the symbolic guests from the Bible whom we invoke by name. And those who choose to sleep in their sukkot are, in effect, homeless, subject to the elements. All of these festival traditions can have the effect of focusing us on the true message of the holiday: The company of good people and faith in God are more important than any material possessions. Kohelet validates this message when he talks about his own wealth: “Then my thoughts turned to all the fortune my hands had built up, to the wealth I had acquired and won – and oh, it was all futile and pursuit of wind; there was no real value under the sun!” (2:11)
While this may explain why we read Ecclesiastes on the Shabbat of Sukkot, it does not explain how we can hear these words and have nothing but joy. Perhaps the answer lies in understanding the true nature of blessing. Kohelet was convinced by the time he had reached old age, that everything was random or predestined or both. When we rejoice on Sukkot, however, we embrace a different theology, one that tells us that we can invoke God’s name, remember God’s miracles, and enjoy God’s bounty. While it is true, especially with winter on its way, that we don’t know for certain what the future will bring, we do know that the present gives us an opportunity to give thanks. The Kohelets of the world may mock us and say it is utter futility, but our abundance of food, family, and friends gives us reason to celebrate now. For even Kohelet himself said, “Go, eat your bread in gladness and drink your wine in joy; for your action was long ago approved by God.” (9:7)
Temple Emeth, Teaneck, Reform.