Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot
Sukkot is known in Jewish tradition as ‘heChag’, the festival, and truly it seems that everything is in it, and in a way, everything is also within Megillat Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, that we read on Shabbat Chol HaMoed, when there is one, and otherwise on Shemini Atzeret, (though, over time, there have been different tradition). It is easy to give many reasons why it belongs to Sukkot, but in an important article Rabbi Dr David Golinkin (1) indicates various sources which suggest that Kohelet became accidentally attached to the festival. There was a wish for the five Megillot to read each year in the synagogue, and while Purim and Esther were inextricably linked, Song of Songs, relating to spring, fits with Pesach, Ruth and the wheat harvest with Shavuot, and Eichah, Lamentations with Tisha B’Av. Kohelet had to go somewhere, and found its place with Sukkot. It is indeed a strange book and there was a debate as to whether it should be included in the Biblical canon, and is perhaps there because one tradition is to attribute its authorship to King Solomon. Certainly it comes within the category that is known as ‘wisdom literature’.
Sukkot is z’man simchatenu, the season of our rejoicing, and we think of it as a happy time, when we are more relaxed following the conclusion of the Yamim Noraim. And, of course, while every year we seem to be taken aback by the short time between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, there is a major mood change. We can hopefully enjoy spending at least some time in the Sukkah, whether at Shul or in our own home or as guests. We sing Hallel which does not belong to Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, and the services, if not short, are rather shorter. Yet, at the same time there are serious messages.
At the end of Yom Kippur, we daven the weekday ma’ariv in Shul before the service concludes. For some this really feels like one thing too much, when tired and hungry after the long day, but there are others who really like the fact that, even after this extraordinary day, we immediately include a return to the so-called ‘ordinary’. Personally I am always aware that no matter how many confessions we have made, even at this point, we still have a prayer for teshuvah. Life goes on.
If we are very fortunate, we know that we have made the most of the entire season leading up to Yom Kippur, but, sadly, too often this has not been the case, and it may be for very good reasons. Our lives are complex. There is so much we cannot understand. We are hopeful about the coming year, but the reality is that we do not know what it will bring for us, on a small scale, as individuals, within our families, our friendship circles, our communities, and certainly globally. And we have to combine hope and optimism, with a reality which can take many forms. The message of Sukkot is to reinforce this.
We may eat many meals in the Sukkah, but we know if it is too wet, too cold, we can go inside. It is generally only our youngsters who will sleep in the Sukkah, and they may indeed raise money for the homeless, but again, they, we are fortunate in having homes. We know of too many who are homeless for different reasons. Nevertheless the reality is that even we who are in many ways privileged, can only have an illusion of permanence.
When, as a young person, I first heard the words ‘vanity of vanity, all is vanity’, the opening words of Kohelet in many English translations, I thought it was a criticism of those who were ‘vain’, who, for example, spent too much time looking in the mirror. It is, of course, in a way, but it means so much more. It is much starker to think of ’emptiness’, and to wonder what the point is in anything. What, we might say, is the point of our lives given how many difficulties so many encounter, and given that right action often does not appear to be rewarded? Yet, while one can dismiss this as cynicism, perhaps it is helpful to hold on both to the illusion of permanence, and the knowledge that that which we think permanent can disappear at any moment.
Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book ‘When all you’ve ever wanted isn’t enough: the search for a life that matters’, (2) considers Kohelet and shares why it is truly wisdom literature. He links this with Sukkot which he calls ‘a celebration of the beauty of things that don’t last, the little hut which is so vulnerable to wind and rain…ripe fruits which will spoil if not picked and eaten right away…friends who may not be with us for as long as we wish… Sukkot comes to tell us that the world is full of good and beautiful things, but that we have to enjoy them right away. It is a time as Kohelet says, ‘to eat our bread in gladness and drink our wine with joy’, not despite that fact that life does not go on forever, but because of it.’
Sukkot has many levels, and we experience it in different ways in different years, but truly experiencing it, including reading and studying Kohelet, can give us valuable lessons for the entire year. Chag sameach.
1) Golinkin, Rabbi Dr David: ‘Why and when do we read the book of Kohelet in public?. Responsa in a Moment: volume 1 issue no.2, October 2006
2) Kushner, Rabbi Harold: ‘When all you’ve ever wanted isn’t enough: a search for a life that matters’, 1986