Joy In Simplicity

“Vanity of vanities,” says Kohelet; “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (הבל הבלים הכל הבל[1)] The word “vanity” is often used in translations for הבל yet I prefer the translation “wasted potential,” representing the life of הבל, or Abel, Cain’s brother, which was cut way to short by Cain’s fratricide.

We read these words every Sukkot yet we have to ask why? Yesterday we discussed the double joy that Sukkot brings, so why would we now say, on Shabbat Hol HaMoed Sukkot, that it is all in vain? This is particularly surprising when we consider that the ascribed author of Kohelet, better known to us as Ecclesiastes, is King Solomon.[2] Solomon, or Shlomo, means one who is at peace, and we know that King Solomon lived during a most prosperous time, when Israel was not at war with any of it neighbors, he was considered Israel’s wisest king, and he merited building the Temple as the House for G-d. Why would he be the one to say that all is vain and to have such a difficult book to read?

What’s further troubling is that Kohelet is a book of myriad internal contradictions. As is pointed out by numerous rabbis, Ibn Ezra especially, Kohelet contains over a dozen contradictions. One example is when he says ולשמחה מה זאת עושה לשחוק אמרתי מהולל (“of laughter I said ‘It’s maddening!’ of joy ‘what good is that?’”)[3] whereas six chapters later he proclaims ושבחתי אני את השמחה אשר אין טוב לאדם תחת השמש כי אם לאכול ולשתות ולשמוח (“I praised joy. For the only good a person can have under the sun is to eat, drink and enjoy himself.”)[4] He has a similar contradiction within that very chapter, stating יהיה טוב ליראי אלקים אשר ייראו מלפניו (“It will be good for G-d fearers for they revere G-d”)[5] yet two verses later he proclaims יש צדיקים אשר מגיע אלהם כמעשה רשעים (“There are righteous ones who suffer the fate of the wicked.”)[6] It definitely does not appear to be appropriate for the festival of joy, a day on which we read the Haftarah for the coming of the Messiah following the battle with Gog of Magog.

The rabbis don’t like Kohelet, proclaiming “O Solomon, where is your wisdom? Where is your understanding? Not only do your words contradict those of your father David, but they also contradict themselves. Your father David said לא המתים יהללו יה (“it is not the dead who praise G-d”)[7] but you said ושבח אני את המתים שכבר מתו-מן החיים אשר המה חיים עדנה “I thought the dad more fortunate who have died already, than the living who yet live.”[8] Then you (contradicted yourself by saying) כי לכלב חי הוא טוב מן האריה המת “Better a living dog than a dead lion.”[9] Therefore, the rabbis sought to ban Kohelet from the biblical corpus.[10]

Looking at Solomon’s life, we can see why this is the case. Though he appeared to have it all, the Book of Kings tells us that this was not the case. Deuteronomy is clear that the king shall not “acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt to add to his horses…And he shall not have too many wives, lest his heart go astray, nor shall he accumulate too much silver and gold.”[11] Solomon broke these commands from Deuteronomy having “700 wives, princesses and 300 concubines, and his wives turned his heart away,”[12] specifying that they did so “when he was old.”[13] He had 40,000 stalls of horses for his chariots, 12,000 horsemen.[14] It specifies that “Solomon’s import of horses was from Egypt and Kue,[15] and the king’s merchants procured them from Kue for a price.”[16] Furthermore, Solomon had a huge corvee labor force: the remaining Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Do not worry-the text specifies that “of the people Israel, Solomon made no slaves.”[17] To build the Temple, Solomon had “70,000 that bore burdens, and 80,000 that were hewers in the mountains.”[18]

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that, in addition to Solomon violating Torah law, he “transformed Israel into a second Egypt,”[19] including allying himself with Pharaoh by marrying his daughter for a political alliance. King Solomon did not realize until it was too late that he “did that which was evil in the sight of G-d, and did not fully go after G-d, as did David his father.” His punishment was the splitting of the Kingdom of Israel under his son Rehoboam.

When Solomon reached the end of his kingship, he reflected on his pursuit of riches, recognizing that all he acquired was in vain. He sighed, saying, “I made great works; I built houses; I planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks, planting trees in them with all kinds of fruit. I made pools of water…I acquired servants…I had great possessions of herds and flocks…I gathered much silver and gold, and treasure such as kings and the provinces have as their own…then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was no profit under the sun.”[20] Solomon recognized that all the riches in the world could not save his legacy.

On Sukkot we prove King Solomon’s lesson. We are no longer confined to the palaces that are our homes; rather we live in a simple booth. We do not seek after the security of our possessions; rather we prove that we can live in the simplicity “a hut, with only leaves for a roof, exposed to the wind, the cold and the rain, and still rejoice.”[21]

We find joy in simplicity, rather than in keeping up with the Joneses; in community, rather than our individual palaces, in believing that there is a much deeper and more significant meaning to life than our possessions. That is the joy that we are celebrating today, a joy which is mentioned throughout the book of Kohelet. That is what we gather to celebrate today; the deeper meanings and purposes of life: our congregational family, our community. Let us learn from Solomon/Kohelet’s example and strive after the right things, those which make a difference to us, to our families and to our personal legacies.

[1] Kohelet 1:2

[2] He is given the name Kohelet (קהלת) to indicate that he spoke before the congregation (קהל) of Israel. His name is in the feminine because he is speaking wisdom literature (ספרות חכמה) which is feminine.

[3] Kohelet 2:2

[4] Kohelet 8:15

[5] Kohelet 8:12

[6] Kohelet 8:14

[7] Psalms 115:17

[8] Kohelet 4:2

[9] Kohelet 9:4

[10] Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 30b

[11] Deuteronomy 17:16-17

[12] 1 Kings 11:3

[13] 1 Kings 11:4

[14] 1 Kings 4:26; in 1 Kings 10:26 it lowers the number to 1,400 horsemen and 12,000 horsemen

[15] 1 Kings 11:4

[16] 1 Kings 10:28

[17] 1 Kings 9:22. Rabbi Sacks points out that it the fact that this needs to be mentioned is by itself alarming!

[18] 1 Kings 5:29

[19] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Ceremony and Celebration: Introduction to the Holidays (Jerusalem, Maggid Press, 2017), p. 135-6.

[20] Kohelet 2:4-11

[21] Sacks, p. 138.

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