One of the customs on Sukkot is the reading of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). The Magen Avraham explains: “On Sukkot, [we read] Kohelet since these are days of rejoicing and it states in Kohelet (2:2): ‘What does joy accomplish?’” This explanation is particularly puzzling. Whenever I read Kohelet, I usually end up feeling confused or depressed! Its apparent underlying message is: “What’s the point? Life is a waste of time!” In the words of King Solomon: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity… What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:2,9) Why is this megillah read on “zman simchatenu” (the season of our rejoicing), rather than on a sad day like Tisha Be’Av? Perhaps, while we are grappling with one of the worst global crises of our times, the connection between Kohelet and zman simchatenu might be more intuitive.
Sukkot is the only “dateless” festival, since nothing historic happened on the 15th of Tishrei. The Tur (O.C. 425) explains that the reasoning for the date is its counter-intuitive message: “Although we departed from Egypt in the month of Nisan, He did not command us to build the sukkah during that season, because it is the beginning of the summer, when people usually build booths for the shade, and it would not be recognized as being built in order to fulfill the mitzvah of G-d. He therefore commanded us to make it in the seventh month, which is the rainy season, when people usually move out of their booths to live in their homes.” On Sukkot, we are asked to leave our sheltered homes at the end of the summer, when most people would be returning to their permanent residences, and to sit in our temporary, exposed booths when the rainy season starts.
The message of the sukkah
We tend to think of our brick homes as providing us with a sense of safety and belonging. But in truth, as long as our safety depends on external factors, we will remain inherently insecure, and keep hustling for approval and affirmation. However, no external acceptance will give us the sense of belonging and happiness. In the introduction to her book “Braving the Wilderness – The Quest for True Belonging,” Brene Brown quotes the American poet Maya Angelou: “You only are free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.” The Egyptians had the strongest empire and economy of the time, basing their power on the Nile River and their construction industry. That power was fake and external, and when God intervened this false strength collapsed. By contrast, the Jewish nation was formed in the desert, and our resilience was forged by our braving the wilderness for 40 years. That is why many of our commandments are supposed to remind us of the Exodus from Egypt – “zecher l’yetziat Mitzrayim.” The Exodus of the Jewish slaves was a lesson to the world that true strength emanates from vulnerability, and that authentic safety comes from within, from our faith in God.
“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world... True belonging is not something you negotiate externally, it’s what you carry in your heart. It’s finding the sacredness in being a part of something. When we reach this place, even momentarily, we belong everywhere and nowhere.” (Brene Brown, ibid)
On Sukkot, we celebrate the secret of Jewish survival, as represented by our ability to “belong every place and no place.” The best way to experience this is by leaving our cozy homes and finding the courage to dwell in the more exposed sukkah. The Sfat Emet says: “This is the purpose [of Sukkot] that the temporary dwelling will be more permanent than any standing house in the world… since the essence of freedom is when one does not depend on any external factor and can leave the permanent dwelling.” The message of Kohelet
The frustration of King Solomon, expressed in Kohelet, carries the same message. He was the richest of kings, but his endless possessions did not give him a sense of safety and belonging. He writes: “I built myself houses, and I planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted in them all sorts of fruit trees. I made myself pools of water, to water from them a forest sprouting with trees… I had possession of cattle and flocks, more than all who were before me in Jerusalem. I accumulated for myself also silver and gold, and the treasures of the kings and the provinces” (2:4-8) After years of accumulating and gathering, he realizes that it’s all in vain and nothing external can give him the sense of belonging in this world: “Then I turned [to look] at all my deeds that my hands had wrought and upon the toil that I had toiled to do, and behold everything is vanity and frustration, and there is no profit under the sun.” (2:11) Perhaps the core message of Kohelet is summarized in the following verse: “For to a man who is good in His sight, He has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner He has given an occupation to gather and to accumulate” (2:26). The “sinner” is the person who misses out on life. He is the one who is obsessively occupied with gathering and accumulating wealth. The one who finds joy is the one who has the wisdom and the courage to realize that the sense of safety and belonging comes from within us and no from any external factor.
Our careers, expertise, possessions, and assets do not define who we are. It is our deeper purpose in the world that gives meaning to our lives and gives us the sense that we belong here. “True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” (Brene Brown, ibid). True belonging is not defined by our social strata and is not achieved through the acquisition of wealth. True belonging is based on the courage to present who we truly are. That is why there is no more appropriate timing to learn the message of Kohelet than on Sukkot, the season of our rejoicing.
Traditionally, Sukkot was a time of rejoicing since it was the harvest festival, on which we celebrated our acquisitions, when the farmers have gathered all the produce of their fields and estimated the annual revenue of their business. Specifically then, we needed to move out of our comfort zone to the sukkah, the most fragile dwelling, in order to give meaning and purpose to all we have acquired, under the shade of the sukkah which symbolizes the shechinah (divine presence). One of the basic halachot of the sukkah is that there should be more shade than sunlight, and perhaps this is what the rabbis meant when they explained the underlying message of Kohelet (Shabbat 30b): “Under the sun man has no profit (from his labor). However, before the sun he does have profit.” When we take our acquisitions which we acquired in the fields under the sun, and bring them under the shade of God, we grant them purpose and meaning.
In this 2020 fall season, let us try to develop a true inner joy that is based not on our external assets but rather on our vulnerability, faith and resilience. Major crises we sometimes face, such as death, acute illness, job loss or divorce, can cause us to lose the sense of belonging, one of our most crucial emotional needs, as people, frameworks or establishments that provided us the sense of safety are no longer present in our lives. Many of us have experienced a similar feeling during the past few months, a feeling that our world is collapsing. We have experienced enormous uncertainty, financial challenges, lockdown, illness, and the loss of dear relatives and friends. The pandemic has shut down everything that usually provides us with a sense of safety. The loneliness of social distancing has affected our sense of belonging, which is an acute and primal emotional need. This year, perhaps Sukkot can give us an opportunity to recalculate and recalibrate, trying to internalize the lesson of King Solomon. While most external factors are beyond our control, we still have the ability to work on our personal growth, practicing authenticity and self-compassion, and developing the muscles of resilience and belonging.
“Faith is the ability to rejoice in the midst of instability and change, traveling through the wilderness of time toward an unknown destination.” (Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, The Festival of Insecurity, 2013)
The writer, formerly rabbi of the Ohel Ari Congregation in Ra’anana, is author of ‘The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age,’ published in May by Urim Publications