Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Chol Hamo’ed Succot 5777 (2016)
How different our new year is from the secular one. As December departs and January enters, those who honor the day eat, party, drink to excess, make resolutions, and promptly forget them when the hangover hits the next morning. Our new year is a mixed bag. We too have food (and some drink) but we also have the long services in shul, the shofar to make our souls quake, and lodged behind our temple is the knowledge that Yom Kippur is coming, which is supposed to be the deciding moment of the high holiday season.
Except that it is not the final moment. We are told that we have until Hoshana Raba (which is tomorrow) to get our act together. That’s the closing date.
In general, this period is one of such vacillations, oscillations and fluctuations that in some ways we become bi-polar. That includes today. Let’s check the scorecard. We started with Rosh Hashana. Up. Yom Kippur. Down, then up. Succot. Up. Today – Shabbat – should be up but then the megilla that is read on this day is Kohelet, Ecclesiastes. Definitely down. Or maybe up and down. We’ll see about that. And we conclude on Monday with Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah – a definite up.
Let’s go back to Kohelet for a closer look – again. The tone is set in the first sentence: Havel havalim, hakol hevel. Vanity of vanities – all is vanity. Or wisps of air. Or nonsense. And that is the theme that runs through the 12 chapters. Hevel. Vapor that has no weight, no value.
But if that were the only message, I don’t think that Kohelet would have been included in the Bible. In fact, the Talmud debates whether to include it or not. True, we do have negative books, like Job, but this one is attributed to the son of David, probably Solomon or someone of his stature. Between the sighs of resignation and despair we our bombarded by wise sayings that have become common-places:
“The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much; but the wealth of the rich will not allow him to sleep” (Kohelet 5:11). “For all things there is a season, and there is a time for everything under heaven” (3:1). “Better is one handful earned with contentment than two handfuls earned with trouble and chasing after pointlessness” (4:6). “Two are better than one … for if they fall, each can lift his comrade, but woe to the one who falls alone and has no one to lift him” (4:9-10). “The words of the wise spoken softly are heard over the shouts of a ruler to fools” (9:17).
Most vexing is the problem of finding meaning in and for our lives. Kohelet – the gatherer, the lecturer, the teacher – has tried it all and finds that even learning doesn’t do it for him. Being good doesn’t do it because the good and the bad come to the same end. So why bother…
And the message that some commentators infer from the book – and this is truly subversive – is that we should live for the day. This day. Not for posterity. And moreover, we should be grateful for what we have. As Rabbi Reuven Firestone puts it, “Although all our endeavors ultimately seem to end with the end of us, Kohelet and our religious tradition as a whole teach repeatedly that we must nevertheless keep on striving, for despite the inevitable disappointments and the finality of death, life has deep and abiding value.”
And as support for this view he tells us to remember: “Sow your seed in the morning, and do not remain idle in the evening, for you cannot know whether one thing or another will prosper, or whether both will have equal success” (11:6).
And then Kohelet tells us to appreciate what we have: “Therefore, I commend joy, for there is no better thing under the sun than for one to eat, drink and be joyful. This will accompany him in his toil all the days of life that God grants under the sun” (8:15).
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger puts the same argument forward even more forcefully. “The solution is to embrace the temporality of life, and without looking beyond, to savor the moment. One must focus on every detail of the here and now. There is no permanence. That however, is not our downfall. Our downfall is rather the vain effort to deny the truth that cannot be denied.”
In other words, Schlesinger says, we must find the intrinsic value of the present. Thus, wisdom is meaningful but only if gathered for its own sake and not to serve as a monument to the person who gathered it. The same applies to wealth. Wealth is only for enjoyment today. Using it as a stepping stone to fame for tomorrow will only lead to vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
One final word about the juxtaposition of Kohelet and Succot. Succot is the only holiday where we are told, ‘And you shall be happy in your holiday.’ How? By sitting in succot, little booths. These booths are set up in the fall season when winds blow and the chances of your succah flying away are 50-50. It is in this flimsy structure that we express our belief that we will survive and even thrive, in happiness.
Kohelet is a reflection of this disparity. We are told that everything is vanity, yet in the same breath we are given insights into what constitutes the good life and we are urged, almost subliminally, to follow that way.
So let’s take the new year as it comes, and despite all the efforts of politicians (here and abroad) and the media (here and abroad) and the eternally disgruntled, let us concentrate on the values that give us a feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction – values that include helping others and maintaining family ties. And let us remember that in a place where everyone is losing his head and we are keeping ours – perhaps we don’t understand the situation. And let us agree that that is good.
Shabbat Shalom, Moadim lesimcha and Shana tova.