On the Shabbat before the one in which we begin reading the biblical cycle once again, starting with Bereishit, we read the Scroll of Ecclesiastes. Usually this is the intermediate Shabbat of Succot.
This year, because the first day of Succot was a Saturday and there was no Shabbat in the intermediate days, Ecclesiastes was read at the start of the holiday.
Strangely enough, there is a striking connection between what appears to be the pessimistic message of Ecclesiastes and the biblical tale of Cain and Abel.
Commentators throughout the generations have wrestled with the connection between a scroll that laments the utter futility of life in the face of certain death and Succot, our festival of greatest joy. King Solomon, the wisest and wealthiest of kings, who is traditionally reputed to have authored Ecclesiastes, impresses upon us with elegant cadences and the subtlety of a sledge-hammer how neither wisdom nor wealth nor physical pleasures nor toil can bring ultimate satisfaction, for "there is an evil about all things that go on under the sun: the same fate awaits us allâ€¦ a live dog is better than a dead lion" (Ecclesiastes 9:3, 4).
Indeed, the word hevel (literally the vapor from one's mouth on a cold day, but usually translated as "vanity" because of the fleeting nature of this vapor) appears in this scroll no less than 38 times - seven times in the very opening verse: Vapor of vapors [a double noun which counts for two], says Ecclesiastes, "vapor of vapors, everything is vapor" (1:2). And no wonder! After all, according to the literal meaning of this scroll, "The dead know nothing at all; there is no more reward for them, their memory is forgotten. Their love, their hate, their jealousy have already perished, nor will they ever again have a share in whatever is done beneath the sun" (Ibid 9:5, 6).
The traditional commentaries, most notably the Targum, emphasize the vapor/vanity aspect of life when viewed "beneath the sun" - beneath the sun rather than beneath a loving and eternal God, from the perspective of this finite and often unfair world rather than from the perspective of the infinite and true world-to-come. This understanding provides a logical tie-in to the succa: when one views the desert experience from a purely geographical/historical viewpoint, the succot were temporary huts which barely protected us from the cold and heat, the rains and winds; but when we see the desert as the natural outgrowth of divine miracles and loving intervention which freed us from Egyptian servitude, then the desert succot become clouds and rays of divine glory which symbolize the Sanctuary.
But even according to the simple meaning of the text, King Solomon - despite his initial pessimistic assessment of life as transient and inconsequential - seems to make a fascinating turnaround. Immediately following his pining over the futility of a life which must always end in the destruction of human love, hate and jealousy, he suddenly declares: "Go, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a glad heart, for God has already approved your deeds. Let your garments always be white and your head never lack oil. Enjoy life with the wife you love through all the days of the life of your vapor which (God) has given you beneath the sun; for that is your compensation for your life and your toil which you toil beneath the sun. Whatever you are able to do with your strength shall you do, because there is neither deed nor accounting nor knowledge nor wisdom in the netherworld where you are going" (Ecclesiastes 9: 7-10).
What caused the switch in attitude, suggesting that it is precisely the inevitability of death and the briefness of life which ought to spur you on to enjoy life to its fullest and accomplish as much as your strength allows?
I remember my last visit to my maternal grandmother, just a few days before her death. She lived in an "efficiency room" (combined kitchen and bedroom) within my aunt and uncle's apartment; she was then 90 and very ill, although not in real pain. As I entered her room, she gave me her very special smile. "Mein liebes kind" (My beloved child), she said, "this is exactly how I see my life - as an opening and closing of a door, a brief instant in the eternal span of time. Make sure you use each moment. I know I'm dying, and I'm not afraid to die. I'm going home to God. I only pray I used the time I was given as well as possibleâ€¦"
This, I believe, is the true meaning of King Solomon's scroll.
Eitan Dorshav, in an extremely thoughtful article in Azure, Autumn 2004, provides a brilliant interpretation. Were we to face an infinite lifetime, there would be no necessity to do, to love, to relate; after all, why do today what you can always do tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow? Since we are such finite mortals, we must grasp every moment of joy and satisfaction, and live each moment as fully as possible.
The opening portion of Genesis recounts the lives of Cain and Abel (Hevel) the shepherd whose very short life - a vapor, a breath - was cruelly snuffed out. However, the Bible tells us, "And Abel also brought [a sacrifice to God] consisting of his first-born, fatted sheep; and the Lord looked with favor on Abel" (Genesis 4:4). Whether we live to be 20 or 100, our lives are always "too short." The most we can hope for is that the period of time we do live is devoted to God, to the eternal ideals of compassion, freely given love and Truth, and that we serve as shepherds for every moment, and for every person who requires our care. Value doesn't depend on how long you live, but rather on what you make of whatever time is placed at your disposal. If you are a shepherd, guarding moments and people for God, then you will achieve salvation.
On my desk in Efrat is a clock modeled after the sundial erected in Jerusalem's Jaffa Road more than 100 years ago. Instead of numbers it has 12 letters spelling out the verse, "Our days are as a passing shadow." I have added a mediating verse beneath my clock: "In the shadow of Your wings do I find sheltering comfort."
I don't find such a clock depressing. On the contrary, it inspires me to make each moment as momentous as possible.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.