One of the privileges and responsibilities that I have as a congregational professional is serving on the faculty of the Union for Reform Judaism's summer camps. My roles include providing support to counselors and campers, helping out with services, tutoring bar/bat mitzvah students, and assisting with the study theme. Imagine my surprise when three summers ago, my first serving in the unit at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) that focuses on the arts for students in the seventh through tenth grades-that our topic was Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes. My immediate reaction was: "It's so dark. This is summer camp where they are supposed to have fun! What are they going to get out of the ramblings of an older person reviewing and lamenting on life?"
Three summers later, the staff members-and even some of the campers-are still talking about the session. The mere mention of the word Kohelet evokes a nod, a knowing utterance, of something that was deep yet accessible, provocative yet distressing, memorable and powerful.
Traditions about when Kohelet is read during Sukkot vary based on one's location, roots, and/or the actual days of the week of Sukkot. I seize upon any opportunity that I have to share and explore Kohelet further, hence this d'var Torah.
In this d'var Torah, I share some insights on Kohelet, the book, and Kohelet, its narrator, followed by a look at what the connections are between Kohelet and Sukkot. I close with a reflection on why Kohelet was so appealing to these teens and, finally, a thought or message about life that emerges from Kohelet.
The opening of the scroll introduces the person, Kohelet, as the son of David, king of Jerusalem, implying that the words are attributed to Solomon even though this is historically unlikely. Regardless, the words of Kohelet read like that of an elder with death in sight reviewing his or her life much like the psychologist, Erik Erikson1 suggests. Erikson sees life as a series of psychosocial tasks that involve two conflicting forces for which successful resolution leads to the emergence of a virtue or strength. As with Kohelet in this phase of life, the tension is between ego integrity and despair.
But which is Kohelet filled with? Is it ego integrity-a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction with his life? Or is it despair-a darkness and cynicism about his days on earth? On the one hand, Kohelet says: "every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor; it is the gift of God" ( Kohelet 3:13).2 This statement is uplifting and revealing of Kohelet's deference for God. Yet, in almost the next breath, he shares the sobering thought that "there is one fate for both man and beast, and it is the same fate: as the one dies, so dies the other . . . and man has no preeminence above the beast; for all is vanity" (3:19). Translated here as "vanity," the Hebrew havel also translates perhaps more accurately in this case as "vapor" or "futility" conveying the dark tone that permeates Kohelet.
Erikson says that the successful resolution of this phase of life, the tension of ego integrity and despair, is wisdom. Unquestionably this scroll is filled with pithy quotes, insights into life that ring true even though they sometimes seem harsh. For example, "The sleep of a laboring man is sweet, whether he eats little or much; but the abundance of a rich man does not permit him to sleep" (5:11). Perhaps it is the directness and frankness of the statements, the challenge to our values or assumptions about the good life, the truths that most prefer are left unspoken that create discomfort for us, the readers. To contemplate these matters would take us to a dark place within our souls.
For Kohelet, wisdom is both a source of comfort and a burden. "For wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter; but the advantage of wisdom is that it preserves its possesors" (7:12). On the darker side: "For in much wisdom is much grief and he who increases knowledge increases pain" (1:18). This statement reminds me of a gifted children's oncologist who cured many a child but who struggled greatly with the grief of seeing a patient die, the disappointment that in spite of all of his knowledge he was not able to save them.
Kohelet and Sukkot
So what are the connections between Kohelet and Sukkot?
Sukkot is a festival that like Kohelet has its contrasts. In the Torah, we are instructed to "rejoice before the Eternal your God for seven days" (Leviticus 23:40). It is the only festival in the Leviticus 23 accounting of the set times, including the holidays and Shabbat, for which "rejoicing" is mentioned. Yet, Sukkot ends with a "solemn gathering" (23:36). All of this joy is tempered by a sadness, a soulfulness. As much as we celebrate the plenty of the harvest, thanking God for our bounty, so too, at least in our custom of our time, do we spend time remembering our ancestors, mourning our dead.
The strongest connection for me between Kohelet and Sukkot has to do with the "booth" that we are instructed to erect in Leviticus to remind us that we lived in these temporary structures in the wilderness after God took us out of Egypt. Both the scroll and the booth remind us of the fragility of life, the quality of being like havel or vapor that can be seen but seems to have no substance or form; it is elusive and disappears. In the sukkah, we are exposed to the elements-sun, wind, rain, and even snow-not to mention bees, bugs, and other animals. I live in Chicago, so for many a meal we have sat in our sukkah with jackets, gloves, and hats just to keep ourselves warm. Many a gust of wind or a rain storm has knocked down the poles that cover the top of our sukkah. At times, we feared that the whole sukkah might topple over even damaging our permanent structure, our house.
Kohelet reminds us upfront that our life is temporary and fragile. Kohelet pushes us to open our souls, to look deep inside ourselves and humanity, into places that are often not navigated, full of shadows, darkness, and fear, to confront and consider that which may make us feel wobbly and vulnerable. Kohelet reminds us of that which we know, but do not wish to always be reminded of, namely that we are mortal, a blink in history especially as compared to God who is eternal and powerful. Kohelet makes us feel small, humble.
Why Did These Teens Find Kohelet So Compelling?
Perhaps you are now wondering why these teens and the staff found Kohelet so compelling rather than turning away from the wisdom in the text. American culture is filled with optimism, especially our movies, those "Hollywood endings" where the good guy always wins and the bad one loses. While we are the people of HaTikvah, "The Hope," Kohelet presents life as it really is: not always so pleasant, filled with grief, foolishness, and even futility often of our own making or beyond our control. Kohelet realizes the limits of mortality, the way in which all human beings are truly equal including kings and rulers. We are presented with the possibility that something is greater than we are. In a way, the person, Kohelet, is a sympathetic soul mate for teens as they seek their independence, build their identities, and experience future sadness, loss, disappointment, breakup, obstacles, and struggle. Kohelet does not pretend that life is always good; Kohelet shares the way life is, truthfully, resonating with their experience. Teens don't need to be protected, they need to be supported, and given the space to grow and flourish. For that, Kohelet offers much insight to teens and to us as parents, educators, and leaders.
Final Thought and Message
Kohelet opens up a depth of investigating the human condition and soul, some of the darker side of life that can make us uncomfortable. This shadow side of Kohelet, whether we consider his musings to be pessimistic or not, can lead us to a not so comfortable topic, namely depression. Whether or not Kohelet was depressed is not my concern, although his ramblings have that tone. Rather, my concern is for the estimated one in ten American adults who are depressed 3 and the many colleagues, family members, and friends that I am aware of who are dealing with depression. Depression is often a hidden, unspoken about disease or condition. It can be debilitating or worse, lead to suicide. I, and the entire Jewish community, lost a gifted and giving colleague and friend this past year to depression, something that I was totally unaware that she suffered from. Even at this season of rejoicing, as we sit in our shaky booths and read Kohelet, may we remember the fragility of life and reach out to all, for as Kohelet reminds us: "Two are better than one . . . . For if they fall, one can lift up his comrade. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, and has no one to lift him up" (Kohelet 4:9-10).
1. See The Life Cycle Completed, Erik H. Erikson (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1982) and Insight and Responsibility, Erik H. Erikson (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1964)
2. The translation for Ecclesiastes is from The Five Scrolls, ed. by Herbert N. Bronstein and Albert H. Friedlander (New York: CCAR Press, 1984)
Dr. Roberta Louis Goodman, RJE , is education director at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Illinois, and a past president of the National Association of Temple Educators (NATE).