Ecclesiastes

“To everything turn turn turn, There is a season turn turn turn, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” This hit song by The Byrds references almost verbatim the book we began reading today, Ecclesiastes. I’ve often questioned why do we read Ecclesiastes on Sukkot. Chapter 3, referenced in The Byrds’ song, gives us some insight: the fact that there is a purpose to every time period. Here we are at Sukkot, the Festival of Ingathering, historically concluding the harvest in preparation for the cold winter. In the life cycle, this season represents approaching the end of one’s life. Though the author of the book calls himself Kohelet, the root for which is קהל, or congregation, the ascribed author is King Solomon. According to tradition, King Solomon wrote the Song of Songs in his youth, when he was in love; he wrote the Book of Proverbs when he was middle aged and he wrote Ecclesiastes in his older years.[1]

At first glance this book seems to cast a dim picture on Solomon’s old age, that he was a curmudgeonly individual who had given up on life. After all, Ecclesiastes begins, “vanity of vanities, said Kohelet; futility of futilities-all is futility. What gains a man from all his labor at which he labors under the sun? One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever.”[2] What joy do we find in such a sardonic message? Why read this text year after year?

One could argue that the emphasis is in the final verse, which will be chanted on Friday at morning minyan: סוף דבר הכל נשמע: את האלהים ירא ואת מצותיו ישמור כי זה כל האדם-The end of the matter all having been heard: fear G-d and keep His commandments, for that is all of man.”[3] Kohelet goes from mentioning the futility of the world to stating a primary mission of fearing G-d and observing the Mitzvot. What an incredible transformation!

We read Kohelet on Sukkot because of the deep meaning in that last statement. We just finished the High Holiday season and one could easily ask if this was all a ruse, if there was any deeper purpose to this or if we were just going through the motions, the same as last year. The argument Kohelet is making is there is a deeper meaning to life-it just took him awhile to find it. The goal is to not get caught up in the vanities and vicissitudes of life but rather to find a sense of godliness in one’s daily living.

If there was anyone who could accomplish this it was King Solomon. As a young man, Solomon had 300 wives and 700 concubines.[4] G-d was displeased with Solomon because his involvement with so many women-far more than the 18 wives allowed in Deuteronomy-turned him away from G-d.[5] This is the reason given for the splitting of the Kingdom of Judah and the Kingdom of Israel, with Solomon’s son Rehoboam only holding on to two-and-a-half tribes.[6] Some have said that Solomon realized the error of his ways and repented through his writing of Ecclesiastes, stating that “Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of the life of your futility, which G-d has given you under the sun.”[7] In other words, futility refers to the earthly world-that which is not futile to following G-d’s Mitzvot.

How do we apply the lessons of Kohelet to our lives? We are beginning one of the most joyous festivals, where we invite others to “sukkah hop,” enjoying festival meals in our Sukkot. Part of every holiday in our tradition is supposed to be לכם, “for you”: for us to rest, relax and enjoy. However, part is also supposed to be לו, “for Him”: for G-d through prayer and study. Let us not make the mistake of pursuing the physical at the expense of missing the spiritual. By making time in our holiday for both, we will make Sukkot a holiday of true joy and invite G-d’s presence, the Shechinah, to fully dwell within our midst. Let us take the lessons of Kohelet to heart, focusing our holiday on what is truly most important: each other, our families, and our relationship with the Almighty.

[1] Seder Olam Rabbah 15

[2] Ecclesiastes 1:2-4

[3] Ecclesiastes 12:13

[4] 1 Kings 11:3

[5] 1 Kings 11:9

[6] 1 Kings 11:11

[7] Ecclesiastes 9:9

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