Gloom and doom at the season of our rejoicing

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For the “time of our rejoicing,” as the Rabbis like to call Sukkot, the holiday has a curious custom.  On the Sabbath of Sukkot, the nihilistic book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) is read.  Best summarized by its opening refrain, “vanity of vanities; everything is worthless,” it hardly seems like the slogan of choice for the holiday of joy.  Why is Kohelet read on Sukkot, and what can it tell us about happiness?

Rabbi Azariah Figo was the Rabbi of Venice in the 17th century whose sermons, known for their erudition and relevance, were recorded in Bina L’ittim (Wisdom for the Ages); his explanation is commonly quoted.  He explains that the death and caution of Kohelet will serve as a limit on the excessive joy of Sukkot, serving as a safeguard against levity and excess.  Simply put, the joy of Sukkot threatens to get out of hand.  Too much alcohol, food and celebration might result in an atmosphere where guards are let down and sin crouches at the door. 

The sentiment is expressed well in Talmudic stories that take place at the weddings of the children of Ravina and Rav Ashi, sages who lived at the very end of the Talmudic period.  These stories serve as an earlier description of the now famous custom of “breaking the glass.”  The Talmud (Berachot 30b-31a) relates:

“Mar, son of Ravina, made a wedding feast for his son, and he saw the sages, who were excessively joyous.He brought a valuable cup worth four hundred zuz and broke it before them and they became sad. Rav Ashi made a wedding feast for his son, and he saw the sages, who were excessively joyous.  He brought a cup of white glass and broke it before them and they became sad.  The sages said to Rav Hamnuna Zuti and the wedding feast of Mar, son of Ravina:  Let the master sing for us.  He sang to them:  Woe unto us, for we shall die.  Woe unto us, for we shall die.  They said to him:  What is the chorus of the song for us to respond after you?  He said to them:  Where is the Torah and where is the Mitzva that protect us?”

Although the custom of breaking the glass is now commonly explained in relation to the destruction of Jerusalem and the holy Temple, these earlier Talmudic accounts suggest an attempt to curb excessive behavior.  The truth is, Jewish celebrations in America often feel so tame and devoid of true joy that I only wish they had the kind of exuberance that needed to be tamed. 

Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe became famous for his legal commentary on the Shulchan Aruch called Levush. There, he suggests that “Kohelet urges people to rejoice in their portion and not run after increased wealth.  A person who enjoys what he has, it is a gift from God.” 

Solomon, the reputed author of Kohelet, was criticized in the Bible for having too many wives, too many horses, and too much wealth.  That’s on the grand scale, but on a small scale, how many of us try to escape death and our fear of insignificance though consumerism and consumption.  It seems an unstated premise of our modern social order that wealth acquisition and financial success afford some sort of eternal security.  But they don’t, and we can’t take the money with us.  It’s such a common assumption though, that it’s extremely challenging to be aware of its many effects on our lives. 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains the phenomenon with beautiful prose in his essay, Seasons of Joy, located in the introduction to his Sukkot Machzor:

“Those who fear death spend their lives in a futile quest for security, for something they can attach themselves to that will not die . . . Implicit in Kohelet is a story about Solomon’s life as a search for security in terms of what we have, what we own and what we can control.  That is a temptation that has led astray some of the most gifted leaders of all times.  But it is a false quest.  Sukkot tells us why it is a false quest.  Because you can live in a hut with only leaves for a roof, exposed to the wind the cold and the rain, and still rejoice.

“And it is joy, not monumental architecture, that defeats the fear of death, because it lifts us beyond the self, the insistent, interminable ‘I.’  Joy is something we share with others.  Joy is fratitude for the gift of life that we feel in the presence of the Giver of life.  We become eternal not by constructing buildings, but by opening ourselves up, making ourselves vulnerable, to the Eternal, to God himself.”

Kohelet teaches us that, ultimately, everything that occurs will pass.  And that attempts at defeating the inevitability of temporality whether through wealth or even wisdom are doomed.  Acknowledgement of both our desire to transcend and our inability to do so ultimately provide a path for realistic, transcendent enjoyment.  The Sukkah is a temple to temporariness, and its worship consists of joy and community, the season of our collective joy.

BARRY DOLINGER is rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in Providence. He is vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.