This is a d'var Torah, or sermon, which I gave Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot, 10/22/2005, at my synagogue, Congregation Kol Shofar, Tiburon, California.
Today is the shabbat in the middle of the holiday of Sukkot. As Susan and Ellen [previous drash givers] have already eloquently talked about, Sukkot is also known as zman simchatenu, the time of our joy. We are supposed to be completely happy during Sukkot -- as the Torah says, v'samachta b'chagecha ... v'haita ach sameach, Take joy in your holiday and be completely happy. (Dvarim [Deuteronomy] 16:14, 16:15)
So when we want to really revel in this festive holiday season, nothing sets the mood like this: "Those who died long since are more fortunate than those who are still living; and happier than either are those who have not yet come into being and have never witnessed the miseries that go on under the sun." I've always found that's the thing to say to really get a rocking party started.
That line, of course, is from Kohelet [Ecclesiastes]. So why do we always read Kohelet, a book with some of the great downer moments of all time, on Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot, the shabbat that falls in the middle of Sukkot?
One widespread opinion says that we read Kohelet especially to take our mood down a notch, to balance out any lightheaded merriment, the same as breaking a glass at a wedding. We are supposed, in this reading, to hear "havel havalim, hakol havel," Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, (or breath of breaths, or vapor of vapors, or futility of futilities) and we are supposed to deflate our wild celebrating and sober up a little. But for me, that doesn't really jibe with the fact that this is the holiday where we are supposed to be ach sameach, which I read as fully, truly happy. I don't like the idea that we're supposed to read Kohelet and as a result, stop being sameach for a few moments.
Rabbi Mordechai Joseph Leiner, the Izhbitzer Rebbe, 1800-1854, gives in his book Mei HaShiloach vol. 2 the following possible alternate reason for why we read Kohelet today: Shlomo haMelech, alav hashalom, asa b'zikunato sefer Kohelet. King Solomon, may he rest in peace, made Kohelet in his old age. V'shamati d'lachen korin oto b'sukkot, and I have heard that this is why we read it on Sukkot, lo mipnei she mahavil simchat olam hazeh, not because it mahavils, which I read as "makes hevel" or trivializes, not because it trivializes the joys of this world, rak she mimenu, rather that from it, nikach tokef v'ikar hasimcha ha'amitit al y'dei hahavalat kol inyanei olam hazeh. from it we take the force and the essence of true happiness, due to the havalat, the futility of all the affairs and matters of this world.
In other words, Kohelet is not being read to temper our joy, to tone it down, but rather, to shore it up and increase it by reminding us that all the occupations of this world are just vapor, as temporary as our sukkah. Nothing in this world matters so very much, and that's the real simcha, for the Ishbitzer -- there's nothing real to worry about, it's all just sound and fury signifying nothing, so why not think of the truly real and permanent things, presumably our connection to Hashem and maybe the world to come, why not think of the greater things and be truly happy in spite of whatever seems so important and serious and worrisome in the moment?
This is a lovely way to read Kohelet, and it might suffice for me except for the fact that I'm getting married in three months, G-d willing. Those of you who know me well will be amazed that I've gotten this far into my drash without mentioning the fact that I'm getting married in late January to the most wonderful man in the world, my fiance Stephen Pride.
It's a very serious and beautiful and thrilling time in my life, a very important-feeling time. I find myself thinking a lot about mortality, about the blessing of finding love, how very lucky I am, and how much I fear the mortality of my beloved, and this informs my perspective on Kohelet.
If you turn to Kohelet 9:7, which is a verse that I actually wrote onto Stephen's and my ketubah, it says "Lech, echol b'simcha lachmecha ushteh b'lev-tov yainecha, ki kvar ratza ha'elokim et maasecha." "Go eat your bread in joy and drink your wine with a good merry heart, because G-d has already approved of what you are doing." And further, verse 9, "R'eh chaim im-ishah asher-ahavta kol-y'mei hevlecha," See and enjoy your life with a woman that you love, all the ephemeral days of your life, and a little further in verse 10, "kol asher timtza yadecha laasot b'chochacha aseh" -- everything your hand can find its way to do that is in your power, do it.
This message, to my ear at this time, boils down to the idea that the very fragility, the very hevel, breath, vapor nature of life, is part of what makes its joys so very important and crucial. We don't know how long we have, and yet doesn't that make it so incredibly sweet to find moments of happiness, satisfaction in love, fulfillment in work, in putting our hands to something we can do, and doing it with all our might? How precious it is, how profound it is, when we have the opportunity to come together and defy our temporariness by forming a loving bond that we have the chutzpah to declare permanent.
In her opinion in the Massachusetts case Goodridge vs. The Department of Public Health, which upheld the right to same-sex marriage, Justice Margaret Marshall wrote, "Civil marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family. Because it fulfils yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life's momentous acts of self-definition."
This Sukkot, I can't help hearing in Kohelet the idea that finding one's partner, that momentous act of self-definition, is one of the few great reasons to truly rejoice about being alive. Far from the only reason -- many people lead very rich and full lives unpartnered -- but one of the few.
Now I know that might be overstating the case, but I have a point beyond just being overflowingly thankful for my own good fortune. I want to remind all of us, including myself, especially in this sweet season, to spare a little more thought for the great mitzvah [commandment, duty] of bringing single people together. If you yourself are single and looking, please don't be shy about letting your friends know what gender and type of person you are looking for -- you are helping them do a mitzvah. If you know someone who you think might be looking for a partner, why not draw them out a little and ask, are you looking, and what kind of person do you envision yourself with? And those of us who are partnered, why not bring together some of the people who you know are looking for their partner, around your shabbos table, just to see what might happen?
My last point is I want to return to the Mei HaShiloach, and how he says: from Kohelet, nikach tokef v'ikar hasimcha ha'amitit al y'dei hahavalat kol inyanei olam hazeh. From Kohelet we can take the force and the essence of true joy, al y'dei, literally at the hands of, hahavalat kol inyanei olam hazeh. The hevel-ness of all the things of this world.
I interpreted this earlier to mean, we are released from the tyranny of petty things and freed to focus on the truly important ones.
But let's read it another way as well. In Psalm 144 line 4 it says, Adam l'hevel damah -- the JPS translation is, A human being is like a breath. So if adam roughly equates to hevel, then let's put that back into the Mei HaShiloach and reread how he says, true joy comes from the havalat of this world. Now we know from Psalm 144 that adam l'hevel damah; I therefore re-read the Mei Hashiloach to say that we read Kohelet on Sukkot because it gives us a sense of the essence of true joy which comes from the *humanity* of this world.
We are such fragile soap bubbles. A flickering little spark of Hashem's divine character, living inside a bag of water and amino acids, as frail and vulnerable as a person dwelling in a sukkah, with such little protection from the elements. And that very fragility is part of what makes us magnificent in our valiant and adorable attempts to bridge the temporary to the eternal. I bless all of us that for the remaining days of Sukkot we should be able to fully appreciate the beauty of our own impermanence, and help each other find even more happiness. Though we can't make our little sukkahs, our lives, last more than a very short time, we can certainly decorate them with all our might, and in all their transience, aren't they glorious? In the words of Andrew Marvell, "Though we cannot make our sun stand still, yet we will make him run." (From "To His Coy Mistress", which ironically contains a casual reference to "the conversion of the Jews," but I refuse to dislike it anyway.)
Shabbat shalom, and moadim l'simcha.
This work is licensed under a Attribution-Noncommerci al-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.