The book of Kohelet, Ecclesisates, always struck me as a peculiar portion to read on the holiday of Sukkot. The Sukkot holiday is described in Jewish prayers as “Zman Simchateynu,”‘ meaning the “time of our happiness.” Yet the book of Kohelet does not inspire such emotions.
From its opening sentences, the author appears intent on giving us full warning about the dark philosophical lesson to be shared over twelve chapters:
דִּבְרֵי֙ קֹהֶ֣לֶת בֶּן־דָּוִ֔ד מֶ֖לֶךְ בִּירוּשָׁלִָֽם׃
The words of Koheleth son of David, king in Jerusalem.
הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃
Utter futility!—said Koheleth— Utter futility! All is futile!
King Solomon, the wisest man in the world who built the holy Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, declared that “everything is futile and without meaning.” Quite a jarring and alarming sentiment. If someone of his intellect, who ruled the united kingdom of Israel at its peak can state that everything is pointless, what should an average person believe? How is such a sentiment to be read and internalized on the happy holiday?
In chapter after chapter, Solomon laid out that every human effort and emotion is for naught. Labor (1:3), beauty (1:8), wisdom (1:13-16), laughter (2:1-2), building projects (2:4-6), amassing wealth (2:7-11) are fleeting and without substance or longevity:
“10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil.
11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”
A man with all the wisdom, power and wealth a person could ever imagine had reached the conclusion that his efforts amounted to nothing. His existence was but a whiff of air.
So a reader is left empty. Sitting in synagogue seats on a Sabbath morning during Sukkot, a person squirms and pivots from Zman Simchateynu, a time of happiness, to depression. Is the true message of the season less about surviving the Day of Judgement at Yom Kippur the week before, to internalizing the temporary nature of life, like the huts Jews live in today during the holiday to commemorate the tents which Jews lived in during their forty years wandering from Egypt to Israel, and the pillar of cloud which God placed to protect them (Exodus 13:20-22)? Hooray, we live! But so what?
Such thoughts are depressing and stand at odds with the sentiment of the holiday. One must imagine that the rabbis who advocated reading Kohelet on Sukkot may have had another message for people to extract from Solomon’s words.
It is possible that the wise king was simply being modest in Kohelet or did not want to be the focus of the world’s envy regarding his status and accomplishments. It is also conceivable that Solomon was so wise that he was able to see into the future and saw that the kingdom which he ruled would soon be torn apart and that the Temple which he built would one day be destroyed.
“הֲבֵ֧ל הֲבָלִ֛ים אָמַ֥ר הַקּוֹהֶ֖לֶת הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃
Utter futility—said Koheleth— All is futile!” (12:8)
But there is another point worth considering.
The Jewish calendar is arranged so that Kohelet is always read publicly a few days before the Torah is finished and restarted on Simchat Torah. The Torah concludes with the end of Jewish wandering and entering the promised land of their forefathers, paired with the opening stories of the bible relaying the creation of the world and mankind.
Finishing the bible and restarting it has been a cycle which Jews have continued for thousands of years, rereading the first thousands of years of Jewish history over and again.
That history had ups and downs with heroes and villains. In restarting the Torah, Jews have a moment to connect to the stories of their favorite characters. Perhaps it was Noah who saved mankind from the destruction of the flood, or Abraham, the original monotheist, or Joseph who saved the world from starvation or Moses who took the Jewish people out of bondage.
The bible is replete with people who helped form the Jewish people into the nation which would enter their holy land by the end of the Torah. Each had a hand in crafting the character of the people.
That excitement about retelling the stories of the biblical forefathers who charted the history of the Jews is seemingly directly counter to Solomon’s Kohelet message. Solomon wrote that everything is meaningless, but we read the bible and conclude otherwise: people make a big difference.
King Solomon’s message may be more nuanced than our plain reading of Kohelet.
Consider that King Solomon had a different hero than most of us who are pulled by the classic narratives of champions and leaders. His hero was seemingly a more simple person whose only mark was worshiping God wholeheartedly. That person’s name covers the entire book of Kohelet: Abel.
Much is lost in the translation from Hebrew, as “הֶ֙בֶל֙” in Genesis is not transliterated as Hevel but translated as “Abel”, and in Ecclesiates it is translated as “futile” or “meaningless.” However, in Hebrew, the words are identical.
We know little of הֶ֙בֶל֙/Abel other than he was a shepherd and offered the best of his flock to God for an offering (Genesis 4:4). God accepted the offering and Abel was killed by his brother shortly thereafter. Unlike King Solomon, הֶ֙בֶל֙/Abel had no wife or children, no riches or possessions. We never even learn about any of Abel’s emotions like his family members who were embarrassed (Adam and Eve) or angry (Cain). הֶ֙בֶל֙/Abel simply watched sheep and made an offering to God.
And that was the totality of his life.
For Solomon, הֶ֙בֶל֙/Abel’s name will forever live in its purest form, while his murderer will forever be marked as a villain who could not escape his secret crime.
ט֥וֹב שֵׁ֖ם מִשֶּׁ֣מֶן ט֑וֹב וְי֣וֹם הַמָּ֔וֶת מִיּ֖וֹם הִוָּלְדֽוֹ׃
A good name is better than fragrant oil, and the day of death than the day of birth.” (Kohelet 7:1)
Solomon ended Kohelet with a clear message:
וְיֹתֵ֥ר מֵהֵ֖מָּה בְּנִ֣י הִזָּהֵ֑ר עֲשׂ֨וֹת סְפָרִ֤ים הַרְבֵּה֙ אֵ֣ין קֵ֔ץ וְלַ֥הַג הַרְבֵּ֖ה יְגִעַ֥ת בָּשָֽׂר׃
A further word: Against them, my son, be warned! The making of many books is without limit And much study is a wearying of the flesh.
The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind:
[סוף דבר הכל נשמע את־האלהים ירא ואת־מצותיו שמור כי־זה כל־האדם]
that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad. The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind.” (12:12-14)
Solomon wrote many books during his lifetime and his father, King David, wrote many psalms. But for Solomon, those don’t really matter. At this time of year, the Jewish people are once again about to read together about their foundation story: the central canon of Judaism, the Five Books of Moses. It is the nation’s time to connect to its ancestors.
Kohelet is not read on Sukkot as a way of adding to the happiness of the holiday; it is the preamble to the Torah to consider the way our ancestors lived and how to model our lives. For the rabbis concerned that people will be drawn to the biblical kings and warriors, leaders and builders, the call to read the text through a prism of connecting to God was captured best in Solomon’s Kohelet.
Solomon’s wisdom is summed up with a simple solitary suggestion: to revere God. Every other action or emotion is inconsequential.
A good name lives forever in a story which is read forever. For King Solomon, the purest person who focused solely on God and nothing else was הֶ֙בֶל֙.
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