These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PCJE] Kohelet: Let it Go

Posted on October 14, 2014 by Binyamin Cohen

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Night Seder Chevrutas Binyamin Cohen and David Wallach
join together to reflect on this week's parshah.

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 9.51.44 AMKohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes, which we read on Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot, is a depressing and troubling book. It is written by “Kohelet the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Ecc. 1:1). Who was this king, and why is he so ambiguously named? Tradition gives us a couple answers: from Solomon, the literal son of David, to Hezekiah and his court, David’s descendent, and a righteous and wise king in his own right. But regardless of the exact authorship, it is the message of this name that is important. It is a name that connotes prominence and wisdom. Kohelet, קֹהֶלֶת, comes from the root קהל, meaning assembly or congregation.

Kohelet is not only the king, the son of a king, he is also the voice the congregation. This puts his controversial, painful statements in even starker relief. As the king, perhaps he had his religious doubts; but they could have remained private, this book could have been written in that context, and elsewise reached our canon. But he is the speaker in the assembly, he is one who voices his opinions, even when they are dangerous and controversial. If we hold with tradition and assume that this Kohelet is indeed King Solomon himself, it makes his message even more powerful.

What does this dreary book have to do with the “our time of joyous celebration”, Sukkot? Let us first frame Kohelet in terms of King Solomon’s life. Of all his writings, Kohelet is the most depressed and world-weary, and can be seen as the work of his old age. After his long reign, filled with ups and downs, success, wealth, wives, and horses, Solomon has come to see that, in his old age, his kingdom is not happy, and his life has been lacking. Kohelet certainly reflects these themes. Furthermore, in comparison with Solomon’s other major work, Song of Songs (Shir HaShirim), Kohelet is cast in even starker relief. Song of Songs is the poetry of his youth, his unbridled love of and lust for life.

We can see from these two books how much Solomon has changed, and we can draw an important conclusion from this, based on when we read the two books during the course of the year. In most Ashkenazi synagogues, Shir HaShirim is read on Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach. Pesach is the beginning of the “holiday season” as it were. It is the first of the three pilgrimage festivals, and kicks off the series of holidays and events that continues through Shavuot, and finally concludes with Sukkot. Shir HaShirim, the song of youth and unbridle joy is how we begin the festival season. Pesach is about joy and freedom, themes which connect with the emotions of Shir HaShirim. It is about the youth of the Jewish people, it is a time when the Jewish people were taking hold of their identity.

Sukkot however is the end of the holiday season. After Sukkot there is a whole month without holidays or special days of any kind, the only one of its kind in our entire calendar. Furthermore, Sukkot comes on the heels of the most solemn holidays of the year. While it is still a time of rejoicing, Kohelet comes to remind us that not very long ago we stood before God in judgement. Not that this should temper our rejoicing, but rather the opposite: we should be rejoicing and giving thanks to God for his kind judgement. As Pesach commemorates the Exodus, Sukkot commemorates the journey in the wilderness. While we still felt the joy of freedom in the desert, life was not always easy. If Pesach is about the Jewish people taking hold, Sukkot is about them letting go: letting go of their security, their daily concerns, and trusting in God.

Kohelet teaches us to let go, he teaches us that the vanities of life are not in and of themselves worth rejoicing over. Indeed, it is important to remember that Solomon’s book is not just a declamation against all the good things of material life. In its closing verses, Solomon reminds us what truly makes meaning and joy in our lives (Ecc. 12:13):

“סוֹף דָּבָר, הַכֹּל נִשְׁמָע:  אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים יְרָא וְאֶת-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו שְׁמוֹר, כִּי-זֶה כָּל-הָאָדָם.”

“The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man.”

It is my letting go of our earthly tethers, by “being happy in our lot”, as our Sages say in Pirkei Avot, that we are made whole. This ultimately is the message of Sukkot. Not only do we give up our homes for a week, and hope the elements do not tear down are doleful booths, it is on Sukkot that our trust in God for a good harvest is strongest.

Just like Shir HaShirim and Kohelet bracket Solomon’s life and paint for us a portrait of man, so too Pesach and Sukkot bracket the Jewish festive season, and paint us a tapestry of the diversity of our faith. In Shir HaShirim, on Pesach, we focus on the temporal: God freed us through miracles, but it is ultimately we who marched into freedom, we who crossed the sea, we who sit at the Seder table, and we who feel unrestrained love for life. In Kohelet, on Sukkot, we focus on the spiritual: we relinquish control to God, we celebrate His providence and protection of us, and we remember that (Ecc.3.1):

“לַכֹּל, זְמָן; וְעֵת לְכָל-חֵפֶץ, תַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם.”

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”

Solomon was not afraid to give voice to this controversial message, and neither should we be afraid to accept it. It may have taken him is whole life, but Solomon realized at the end of his days where his true happiness lay, and he emphatically, almost agonizingly lays it out before us. He has walked the walked, he has been as far down the road of temporal pleasures as possible, splurged beyond imagining. But ultimately he realized that his true happiness was in God, was in letting go. He does not preach asceticism by any means; he simply urges that we remember God in our joy, that during our festival of joy, Sukkot, we remember that is God who brings us from joy to joy, and from happiness to happiness.

The Sukkah itself reinforces this message. The Sukkah, like many things in this world is temporary and flimsy. But that doesn’t mean that we give up, pack up, and head home. We embrace the temporary, the flimsy, inasmuch that it reminds us that sometimes we are not in control. We must sit in the Sukkah, we expose ourselves to the elements, hear the words of Kohelet, and remember that ultimately there is Someone beyond us, that we can only do so much. Let us rejoice in the freedom knowing that He is there, and then we can truly let go.

With thanks to Geo Poor.