Over the course of the year, many synagogues have the custom of reading five special scrolls, מגילות found in the Writings section of the Tanach. Each is read on a special day. Purim. of course, has Megilat Esther; Pesach, Song of Songs; Shavuot, Megilat Ruth; the 9th of Av, Lamentations and on Sukkot we read Kohelet, aka Ecclesiastes. Needless to say each reading picks up on a major theme of the Yom Tov or special day. What then is an essential concept of the holiday of Sukkot that is reflected in King Solomon’s Kohelet?
The Yom Tov of Sukkot is also called by the Torah, “Chag Ha’Aseif,” “the holiday of the in-gathering.” Sukkot comes at the end of the summer harvest. In an agricultural society, the end of the harvest time is one of celebration. It is a time marked by a sense of physical security, ready and well stocked for the downtime of the coming winter months.
Having just completed the bountiful harvest, we read Kohelet in which King Solomon states at the very outset, “Futility of futilities, says Kohelet, vanities of vanities, all is empty.” In fact Solomon mentions the word “הבל” meaning futile, empty, vain, or worthless, 7 different times in the first two chapters. Yet in ספר בראשית , Genesis, that we read only a few days later, God himself says everything He created is “טוב” “good.” So is everything “empty and worthless” as King Solomon says or is everything “good” like the Creator says? Furthermore, as wise as King Solomon was, he wasn’t wiser than God! So how do we resolve this apparent contradiction in our holy texts?
Reb Moshe Feinstein, of blessed memory, one of the foremost halachic authorities of his generation, someone who was consulted with by C. Everett Koop, former Surgeon General of the United States, resolved the dispute between God and Solomon. Reb Moshe answered that the issue centers on how we view the physical world and our wealth. If we view physical acquisitions and possessions as an end in itself, then the physical world is empty, vain and worthless. If however we relate to the physical world the way it was intended by the Creator, to be a means to an end, the end being our moral, ethical, intellectual and spiritual development, then the physical world is, as God says, “טוב מאד” “very good.”
At a time of harvest and plenty we are subject to that human flaw King Solomon is addressing. A person can think, look at all the things I have. I am self-made and secure. In fact, a person can delude himself into thinking that since I have such material success, God must want me to have it. Kohelet reminds us over and over again of the danger and disappointment running after physical wealth and pleasures as the sole purpose of a person’s life. We have all performed the experiment on ourselves countless times. As children we think having a certain toy that will make our lives complete. Then as we grow older we think having that car, or house, or vacation will do it. Over and over again we misplace our expectations of happiness in the physical. It is temporary and fleeting.
Does this mean we do not enjoy the physical? Are we to be ascetics? No! The Torah’s philosophy is for man to use and enjoy the physical world but as a means to attaining a recognition and relationship with the Creator of the world. That is why in the Talmud Berachot it says, “Eating without first saying the appropriate blessing is considered a violation of מעילה, “breaking the designation of an object donated specifically for use in the Temple,” and “the violator is considered a thief.” The physical world is a treasure trove for us if we relate to it and use it properly. It is the primary means by which we come to recognize the Creator of the universe. So, for example, in order to survive, I must eat. Saying the blessing before eating gives me that moment when I acknowledge the true source of nourishment. A blessing is recited after the conclusion of my meal to express my full gratitude to God.
Observing the holiday of Sukkot and fulfilling the mitzvah of living in the Sukkah challenges us to confront this very attitude. At a time when we sense great physical security, we go outside and live in a temporary dwelling. We come to recognize our true standing vis-à-vis the universe. We are small, frail, dependent creatures despite our wealth and possessions. When we put them in the service of God, then we are bringing ourselves into harmony with the physical world God created for us. As God testifies in His Torah, only good can result for mankind.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan