Why Read Ecclesiastes During Sukkot?
By Rabbi Barney Kasdan, Kehilat Ariel Messianic Synagogue (San Diego, CA)
Our joyous celebration of Sukkot reaches a climax tonight during Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day. This day is named after the custom of circling the bima in the synagogue seven times, reciting verses that reflect the phrase Hoshana—“Save us, please!” Intermingled with the joy of Sukkot is a rather sober lesson in life. Customarily, we read from the scroll of Ecclesiastes (in Hebrew: Kohelet), which is a serious reminder of the realities of life. Solomon, the son of David, shares some of his vast experience with us every Sukkot.
The rabbis note that Solomon penned his three famous works at crucial stages of his own life. Song of Songs was penned as a young man in courtship. Proverbs contains reflections of his mid-life. Kohelet contains his wisdom at the end of his days (Midrash Shir HaShirim 1:1). If that is the case, it is striking that the scroll of Kohelet starts with the exclamation "havel havalim/vanity of vanities!" Upon reflecting over his illustrious life, Solomon summarizes that it is essentially empty! What profit is a person's work? Generations come and go. The sun rises and the wind blows but what really changes? Simply put, there are so many things beyond our control.
This could be very depressing or it could lead us to an entirely different direction. Now it becomes clearer why we read Kohelet every Sukkot. In the midst of the joy of the harvest and material blessings, we are reminded of the frailty of life. Who can control the twists and turns of life? The sukkah reminds us that there is a much bigger picture than even our current situation.
Additionally, Kohelet acknowledges that any innovations of mankind are rather meager in their importance. All things toil in weariness; the eye and the ear are never quite satisfied. Ultimately, "there is nothing new under the sun."
Our society is constantly looking for new gadgets to improve our existence. The incredible advance of technology impresses many. Yet, when a hurricane or Las Vegas tragedy hits, the world is suddenly shocked back into reality. For all our advances we are still so far from Paradise. How appropriate that we meditate on the lessons of Kohelet while we dwell in our simple sukkah. Whatever our blessings and technologically advanced society, we are called to reflect on the simple realities of life. This time of year we are to get back to the wilderness experience of our ancestors. Although they had none of the modern conveniences we enjoy, were they less advanced than us today? Maybe there are forgotten truths that our generation needs to rediscover at this season of Sukkot.
Solomon goes on for chapters about the vanity of much of life. It’s easy to get depressed while reading his words here. Yet, at the very end of the scroll, Solomon summarizes his secret to living a fulfilled and purposeful life.
Even though life is fragile and unpredictable, there is a purpose. Despite the fact that all the busy activity of mankind is so meager, we are all here for a reason. Perhaps one of the best secrets of life is revealed at this time of year during Sukkot. Ultimately, all is vanity unless God is in the picture.
How fitting it is that it was on Hoshanah Rabbah, as the festival neared its climax, and the people gathered in the Temple cried out for salvation, that our Messiah spoke out:
Messiah came to give us that personal connection to the Heavenly Father and to a life of meaning. The sukkah, while reminding us of the vanity of this life, also holds forth the meaning of real life. May we all have a blessed celebration as we continue to dwell in the sukkah. Hag Sameach!