A Huff And A Puff And Then What?
In synagogues all over the world during the festival of Sukkot, the book of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes will be read during services, most likely on Shabbat. Kohelet is one of the “Five Scrolls” in our biblical canon, and each is read on a different occasion; Esther on Purim, Song of Songs on Passover, Ruth on Shavuot, and Lamentations on Tisha B’av. Each of those scrolls has a more direct and obvious connection to the respective observances that does Kohelet, and while the simplest reason for including it on Sukkot was to make sure that all five were read during the course of the year, there’s more to it.
Some rabbinic authorities in the past have connected this book to the requirement to “rejoice on the festival,” because the author Kohelet (often wrongly identified as King Solomon) reminds us that God wants us to rejoice and be happy, and to partake of the good things in life. Another reason, according to Rabbi Abraham of Lunel, is verse 11:2: “Distribute portions to seven or even to eight (who need)” which hints at the seven days of Sukkot and the eighth day which is Shemini Atzeret.”
While I didn’t do an exhaustive search, one reason I didn’t come across was Kohelet’s opening words as a metaphor for life: Havel havalim, amar Kohelet, havel havalim hakol havel. The words havel havalim are usually translated as either “vanity of vanities,” or “futility, utter futility,” leading the reader to believe that we’re going to hear from a grumpy old man.
However, hevel means “breath,” or “vapor,” and Robert Alter’s translation of verse 1:2 is “Merest breath, said Quohelet, all is mere breath.” Psalms 144, which is often part of funeral and Yizkor prayers, asks, Adonai ma adam va-tayda-eihu, ben enosh, vayikatzvei-hu. Adam la hevel damam, yamav k’tzel oveir, “God, what is a man that you should take note of him, mortal man, that you should think of him? Man is like a breath, his days are like a passing shadow.”
In other words, life is fleeting. In the whole scheme of things, God is eternal, and we mortals have a finite amount of time to live our best lives. This is Kohelet’s message–life is temporary, and we need to live our lives fully and with moderation between work and play.
I see this temporariness as Kohelet’s connection to Sukkot. In the Torah God commands future generations to dwell in sukkot (huts), “So that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” (Lev. 23:42-43)
Sukkot, by their very nature, are temporary dwellings. A huff and a puff can carry one into a neighbor’s yard (ask me how I know!). A sukkah is open to the elements, and doesn’t offer the protection of a permanent dwelling. It could come crashing down on top of us, just like life.
Kohelet and Sukkot, coming just five days after the solemnity and soul-affliction of Yom Kippur, remind us that life is precious and fleeting, and that it’s up to us to take advantage of the opportunities we’re given for rejoicing, along with having the discipline to buckle down and do what we need to do.