My son has just started reading Animal Farm for school. He read me the passage above, and I marveled at how apropos it was, as I was just starting to write down some ideas about Sukkot and Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, the book of wisdom literature traditionally read at this holiday. The book opens with the following: Major says, “ What is the nature of this life of ours? Let us face it. Our lives are miserable, laborious and short. “
Sounds like Kohelet to me. I remember reading the book when I was in grad school, and found myself pretty annoyed with Kohelet, who is traditionally believed to have been King Solomon. Who did he think he was? Old, rich, fat (I imagined), telling the rest of us that nothing we do is important, it’s all been done before (“nothing new under the sun”) and basically, why bother? I found him to be a pompous ass.
Fast forward a couple of decades or so. I was the theater director for a Jewish summer camp, and one year the camp director wanted to have the fine arts kids do a version of “Joseph” that tied into Kohelet, that unit’s theme. I couldn’t imagine two more different Biblical world-views. But I put together excerpts from “Joseph” and set about to write a play that incorporated both perspectives. Naturally, I had to read the book again. This time, with advanced maturity (!), I realized there was another way to look at Kohelet, and it makes much more sense to be reading it at Sukkot, the joyous festival.
We are celebrating the harvest, the bounty of the earth, the joy of friends. It seems as if Kohelet would be saying there’s no point to celebrating; after all, we did it last year, it’s the same thing again and again. What’s the point? Kohelet is saying the same thing happens to everyone: we all die. Whether you’re rich or poor, sinner or tzaddik (righteous one), nothing we do can change that. But then, he says that as long as you’re in this life, you may as well find someone to share it with, be part of the community, enjoy the fruits of your work, follow God’s path, and make the best of this life, even if it is fleeting.
Perhaps one of the most well-known parts of Kohelet is what became a Pete Seeger song, “Turn Turn Turn”: “to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” The other well-known line in Kohelet is “vanity, vanity all is vanity”, the opening of the book. But hevel is better translated as “breath-like” or “unsubstantial nothingness”; it’s fleeting, hard to grasp, like a puff of wind. This is, I think, the connection to Sukkot.
Our Sukkot, like our lives, are fragile, yet we act as if they aren’t. We put up the Sukkah, only to have to take it down again, and do it all over next year. Why bother? Because it is the season. It is the time under heaven to celebrate that the earth, once again, just like last year, gave forth its bounty (we hope!). We celebrate that the loved ones who visit our Sukkot, just like last year, will come again, and for those who are no longer with us, well, that’s part of the fragility of life, too. We have come through the intense, personal time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and emerged into a celebration that takes us outside, into the community, and under the fading autumn sun. This is the season when we realize that, as we come into the cold, dark winter, the memory of the year’s sun, the efforts of our hands and hearts, even the faith that God has blessed us for another year, though fragile, will sustain us.