The book of Ecclesiastes is read during the Shabbat that coincides with Sukkot. Many of us are familiar with what the book says because of the folk-rock song by the Byrds, “Turn, Turn, Turn”. While the melody of the song is somewhat upbeat or neutral, the actual text of the book is very pessimistic. It addresses the futility of life and asks the question, what is the point of living a life of productivity and accumulating material wealth when we’re all just going to die anyway? Many sages ascribe the author to be King Solomon who indeed lived a life of opulence and became very downtrodden in his later years realizing the aforementioned as truth.
Sukkot, like many holidays and teachings in Judaism, has multiple meanings and symbolisms. Sukkot recognizes, remembers and honors the flimsy structures in which the Israelites camps during their sojourns through the Wilderness prior to conquering and settling in the promised land. One of the reasons that the sukkah we build is flimsy is to highlight that life is flimsy. It reminds us never to get too comfortable with material good because they are so fleeting, just like Ecclesiastes portrays. Sukkot is also a fall harvest, hence the decorations of plants and fruit that adorn our Sukkot.
The tie-in to Ecclesiastes is that we’ve worked hard during the warmer months and now that we’ve harvested our bounty, now what? It’s almost like a dénouement. We’ve planted, grown, harvested, ate…nothing more.
Or is it really that depressing and hopeless? Let’s examine the special Torah portion that is read during the Shabbat of Sukkot. As a pilgrimage holiday, it extends eight days (seven in Israel). It therefore always encompasses at least one Shabbat.
The portion is taken from Exodus. Moses is back up on Mt. Sinai for a second go around on the Ten Commandments. He has broken the first tablets in disgust at the sight of the Golden Calf. G-d, too, is very angry with the offending Israelites. Moshe Rabbeinu, here, asks Hashem for mercy.
Hence the tie-in with the High Holidays. The Sages will say that the opportunity to be sealed in the Book of Life for this new year is not yet a “done deal”. We can still petition until the end, which would be Simchat Torah. Some even go so far as to say that we have the whole month of Tishrei. So this is another opportunity to hone in the point that redemption can still be had.
How do we reconcile the idea of mercy with the pointlessness of materialism? Let’s look at the idea of Yom Kippur. We afflict ourselves by avoiding food, beverage, pleasure and immerse ourselves in the spiritual world. We focus on conquering the temptations of the body in order to be in touch with Hashem. While we are asking for another chance, we are proving that are worthy by proving to Hashem and ourselves that our spirit is stronger than our body, the ethereal over the material.
Yes, Ecclesiastes is correct: as the title of the Broadway play states so simplistically, “You Can’t Take it With You.” But to consider that striving for growth is futile is really not true. To do so would deny that existence extends beyond the physical body.
But let’s assume, for a moment, that it does not, that this physical existence is all there is. Do we not talk about “being fruitful and multiplying” and “Generation to generation”? A person’s existence is very much like dropping a rock into a pond. There are ripples that extend and spread out everywhere.
We don’t know the extent of whom we affect. That’s why the commandment to “Love your fellow as yourself” is so important. It’s like paying it forward. You do something nice for someone and they feel good. That affects everyone with whom they come in contact. Then those people feel good, etc. It spreads out.
Perhaps the physical and material wealth of life are fleeting, but not so the spiritual wealth. Our spiritual wealth lives on long after we’re gone. And not only the memories of us and what we may have done, but there’s also our seed that we’ve created by being fruitful and multiplying.