Only two weeks ago, the Jewish year-cycle began again with Rosh HaShanah, marking new beginnings with hope and anticipation for what is to come. The Jewish year-end and year-beginning is actually much more complicated and subtle than we might think, for as soon as we finish celebrating the beginning of a new year we experience a sobering day of anxious reckoning with Yom Kippur — a day of fasting, deep introspection, and atonement. It is worth pondering the juxtaposition of antiphonal emotions that is so much a part of our tradition — joy with uncertainty, hope with unease, expectation with apprehension — as we approach our future and confront our past almost simultaneously. This exemplifies the kind of "yin and yang" that typifies so much of Jewish life. Seemingly contrary emotions and forces actually end up being complementary.
Then, five days after the dread and discomfort of Yom Kippur we move rapidly to the delight of Sukkot. Sukkot is known in Rabbinic tradition as the "Festival of Our Joy" (Z'man Simchateinu, a name that derives from Leviticus 23:40: "You shall rejoice before the Eternal your God seven days"). Sukkot is the only festival for which the command to rejoice is given. It is a commandment — a mitzvah: us'mach'tem — "be happy!" This quick-paced sprint from one holiday to the next forces a tumble of emotions during these few weeks from Rosh HaShanah into Sukkot.
Meanwhile, although we already completed the annual calendar cycle some weeks ago, we did not complete the yearly cycle of Torah readings until last week, two weeks after Rosh HaShanah. And we will not begin to read B'reishit — "In the Beginning" for yet another week. So while the calendar year began weeks ago, the Torah year has not yet begun. The Torah reading for this Shabbat in the midst of Sukkot is almost like a place-holder, repeating material already covered, which causes a kind of anticipation for the start of the new cycle that will begin next week.
The Festival of Sukkot was especially beloved by our Rabbinic Sages, and they referred to it in the Talmud simply as "the Festival" (Mishnah Bikurim 1:6, 10, etc.). Traditionally, Jews invite guests to feast every day in the sukkah, which is decorated with the bright colors of leaves and fruit from the fall harvest. It is a time of rejoicing over the plenty that God has provided throughout the days of summer and early fall. Yet it is on the joyful Sabbath day during this Festival of Our Joy that we read one of the more depressing books of the Bible, Kohelet (the Book of Ecclesiastes).
The author, according to the book itself, is Solomon, as it begins, "The words of Kohelet, son of David, king in Jerusalem." Kohelet means "convener" — "gatherer" of sentences or people for oration, which was translated into Greek as Ecclesiastes (ekklesia was the name of the principal assembly of Athens in ancient times). Kohelet's first words convey a theme that is repeated throughout the book: "Vanity of vanities, said Kohelet, vanity of vanities, all is vanity" (1:2). The repeated Hebrew term is hevel, and it means something like "vapor" or "breath" that easily dissipates (Prov. 21:6). "Havel havalim," says Kohelet, repeating the phrase over and over again. It has been translated in a variety of ways, from "a striving after wind" to "utterly pointless," or "futile, futile!"
Despite the book's apparent pessimism, it is filled with wonderful moments of insight and wisdom. "The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much; but the wealth of the rich will not allow him to sleep" (Kohelet 5:11). "For all things there is a season, and there is a time for everything under heaven" (3:1). "Better is one handful earned with contentment than two handfuls earned with trouble and chasing after pointlessness" (4:6). "Two are better than one … for if they fall, each can lift his comrade, but woe to the one who falls alone and has no one to lift him" (4:9-10). "The words of the wise spoken softly are heard over the shouts of a ruler to fools" (9:17).
Yet pervading the entire work is a sense of futility and dread. "For much wisdom brings much vexation, and increasing knowledge increases pain" (1:18). "I observed that all work and excellent achievement are [actually] the result of envy of one for another" (4:4).
Kohelet keeps matching up beauty with disappointment, striving with meaninglessness, and the finality of death that seems to conquer everything. "There may be a thing about which one will say 'See, this is new!' but it already existed for ages before us" (1:10). "I turned to observe all the oppression that takes place on earth. Here are the tears of the oppressed with no one to comfort them. Power is in the hand of their oppressors, so they have no comforters" (4:1). "Just as one comes naked from one's mother's womb, one returns just as naked, keeping nothing from the efforts, with nothing remaining from the toil" (5:14). "[At least] the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing. They have no remaining reward, for their memory is forgotten" (9:5).
Kohelet is indeed a perplexing book, and it may seem perplexing that it is read on such a happy occasion as Sukkot. But the puzzle of Kohelet might be resolved through its essential nature of juxtaposition. For despite the cyclical nature of our calendar — and our lives — and despite the fact that all our endeavors ultimately seem to end with the end of us, Kohelet and our religious tradition as a whole teach repeatedly that we must nevertheless keep on striving, for despite the inevitable disappointments and the finality of death, life has deep and abiding value. "Sow your seed in the morning, and do not remain idle in the evening, for you cannot know whether one thing or another will prosper, or whether both will have equal success" (11:6). We learn also that we can (and should!) appreciate what life has to offer. "Therefore, I commend joy, for there is no better thing under the sun than for one to eat, drink and be joyful. This will accompany him in his toil all the days of life that God grants under the sun" (8:15).
Kohelet is a remarkable work of wisdom. In the end, despite what may seem to be the apparent futility of life which, no matter how much we might wish to deny it, will indeed come to an end, Kohelet teaches that we need to acknowledge gratitude as we move into the new year. That may be why it has become a central reading for Sukkot. It coveys something of life's extraordinary complexity and is a superb work to read in a Sukkot reading-circle, and in the sukkah. The essential fragility of the sukkah is itself an incentive for gratitude, and its fragility complements the book's ambiguity. Kohelet comments about this too: "I know that there is nothing better than to be happy and to do good in one's life. When one eats and drinks and sees good in all one's labor — that is indeed a gift of God" (3:12-13).
Rabbi Reuven Firestone, Ph.D. teaches medieval Jewish Torah commentary at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is the Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at the Los Angeles campus.