When I told my husband I was preparing this introduction to Kohelet, he asked me a simple question. “Why do we read Kohelet on Sukkot?” Simple questions are often the most profound.
My first response—which may have come to your mind, too—is that dwelling in a sukkah puts us in touch with the fragility of life, and that is the message of Kohelet. However, the more I studied the text, the more I appreciated the elegant way the author of Kohelet, said to be King Solomon, creates a “virtual” sukkah in which we can dwell. Let me explain.
When we sit in our sukkahs in South Florida, which can be blown over in a good wind, we experience in our own bodies the vulnerability of our ancestors’ journey through the desert, as well as the vulnerability of our lives. That vulnerability also appears in the final chapter of Kohelet which puts us in touch with our physical body in barely-veiled allusions to our declining faculties. We read, “When the guards of the house become shaky,” referring to our arms; “And the men of valor are bent,” referring to our legs,” and “the maids that grind, grown few, are idle,” referring to our teeth. You get the picture–and it’s not a pretty one.
Dwelling in a sukkah also locates us firmly in the realm of Nature, observing the predictable movements of G-d’s Creation, of which we are an inextricable part. One of the joys of this holiday is sitting quietly, under the stars, contemplating the Heavens. We rarely give ourselves permission to just “stop” and immerse ourselves in our surroundings. Sukkot gives us that opportunity.
Kohelet is full of references to the natural world: the opening chapter evokes the sun, the wind and the sea. The well-known third chapter reminds us of the natural order of our world—a time for living and dying; for planting and reaping, for building up and tearing down. Sukkot, as a harvest festival, celebrates Nature’s bounty and the abundance of G-d’s gifts in our lives. Kohelet also exhorts us to enjoy Nature’s bounty, from the vineyard, the fruit trees and the garden, however transitory these pleasures may be.
In Kohelet, we are also placed in Nature and in the Creation story through the vocabulary of the text. “Hevel”, which appears 38 times in the text, is usually translated as futility. It also means a “shallow breath”, so Kohelet reminds us that life is short, that the “breath” or “vapor” that G-d breathed into Adam also flows through us.
Kohelet admonishes us that pursuing material pleasures is like “chasing the wind.” “Wind” in Hebrew is “Ruach”, another connection to Bereishit, v. 2, “a wind from G-d sweeping over the water.” “Ruach” also means breath or Spirit. Perhaps Kohelet is suggesting that rather than chasing Spirit, we can receive Spirit by sitting quietly in our sukkahs. We can welcome Spirit in, just as we receive our Ushpizin, our ancestors and invited guests.
Kohelet’s advice, to fully enjoy our pleasures because everything passes away, reminds us that the only time we truly can count on is the present. Rather than a pessimistic approach to life, this message presages the current emphasis on mindfulness—being aware of our breath and coming to life fully in the present moment.
With these themes of vulnerability, the natural world and the cycles of time, Kohelet conjures up a “virtual” sukkah that surrounds and protects us. Sukkot is called “zeman simchateinu”, the season of our joy. At the end of Kohelet, we are reminded to Revere G-d and to observe G-d’s commandments. We do just that by dwelling in our sukkahs and celebrating the holiday with joy and gratitude.