This Shabbat we will read the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), as we do every year on the Shabbat of Chol HaMoed Sukkot. The book of Kohelet, one of the five Megillot, is about the vanity and futility of all human pursuits. The author, traditionally thought to be King Solomon, writes about loneliness, the tears of the oppressed, the hollowness of wealth, the transience of life, and the similar fate that awaits the righteous and the wicked, and the wise and the foolish alike. The book’s images – which include snakebite, stillbirth, dead flies, and the relentless rising and falling of the sun – seem to have nothing to do with the holiday of Sukkot, which is at once a harvest festival in which we celebrate our bounty and a commemoration of God’s loving care for the Israelites during our wilderness wanderings. Why do we read such a depressing book on the holiday known as “the time of our rejoicing”? The Talmudic rabbis, amidst a discussion of the nature of the Sukkah, begin to hint at an answer to this question, offering insight into the meaning of Sukkot and its nuanced emotional valence.
The first chapter of the Talmudic tractate about Sukkot opens with a debate about the structure of the Sukkah and its architectural requirements. How tall may the walls of a Sukkah be? Must a Sukkah be strong enough to withstand heavy sea winds? What if a Sukkah is smaller than four square cubits in area, or can fit only one person not including the table where he or she eats? What if it’s built atop a wagon or a ship? As the rabbis demonstrate, the answer to all of these questions hinges on the extent to which the Sukkah is regarded as a temporary structure. Everyone agrees that the mitzvah to dwell in a Sukkah is for seven days alone, but how solid and stable must the Sukkah be? The Babylonian sage Abaye contends that the sages are divided about this matter – some hold that a Sukkah must be fit to last more permanently, while others maintain that the Sukkah should be an inherently temporary structure (Sukkah 7b).
Rabbi Eliezer is listed among those sages who argue that a Sukkah must be fit to be a permanent structure; in contrast, his student Rabbi Akiva maintains that a Sukkah is inherently temporary, and thus it need not be strong enough to withstand uncommonly strong winds (23a). Their disagreement is interesting in light of another debate between them, about the nature of the Sukkot we are commanded to dwell in on the holiday. Drawing on the verse in which God commands us to dwell in Sukkot “in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in Sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43), Rabbi Akiva argues that the requirement is to dwell in leafy-roofed huts – actual Sukkot. But his teacher Rabbi Eliezer disagrees, insisting that Sukkot refer to the clouds of God’s glory which protected the Israelites in the wilderness (Sukkah 11b). And so Rabbi Akiva, who holds that the Sukkah is inherently temporary, also understands the Sukkah as a physical structure; whereas Rabbi Eliezer, who holds that the Sukkah must be fit to last more permanently, understands the Sukkah as a reference to God’s presence.
On Sukkot we realize that Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer are both right. The physical structures we build on Sukkot, like most anything human beings construct, will not last forever; only God’s protective presence endures eternally. It is for this reason that Kohelet is so appropriate to read on this holiday. Kohelet teaches that everything material is temporary; a rich person hoards wealth only to find that it is suddenly lost in an unlikely venture. “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers,” as Wordsworth put it. And yet God’s glory and God’s sheltering presence are permanent and enduring, as the book of Kohelet concludes: “The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe God’s commandments, for this is the whole of humanity” (12:14). On Sukkot a keen awareness of temporality intensifies our yearning to know the comfort of God’s eternal presence.
Sukkot, like the book of Kohelet, is about the relationship between the temporal and the eternal, reminding us of what truly endures. All year we can delude ourselves into thinking that our houses and possessions will be ours forever, but on Sukkot we realize the vanity of that assumption. Nothing we own is truly ours; we are at best custodians for a world God created and entrusted to our care. Our time on this earth, too, is inherently temporary – one generation comes and another goes, like the abundant harvest of the fall that dwindles in the winter months, and like the leafy branches that adorn our Sukkah but will soon wither and crumble to dust. “We live on this vast earth for such a short while,” writes poet Edward Hirsch, “that we must mourn and celebrate right now.” On Sukkot we rejoice at the knowledge that through the very precariousness of our temporary structures, we can find shelter and shade, beauty and bounty and blessing.