Rabbi Jonathan Sacks delivered a shiur in London, in honor of the launch of the Koren Machzor for Sukkot. Our shul is fortunate to have been gifted with this new edition and some of Rabbi Sacks’ words are pertinent specifically to the Shabbat that falls during the week of Sukkot.
It is customary among Ashkenazi congregations to read the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) during this Shabbat of Sukkot. The connection of Kohelet to Sukkot is not readily evident, as Sukkot is known to be a time of joy, while Solomon explores the depressing notion of mortality throughout the book. Kohelet would be the last book one would expect to be chosen to accompany this festival of joy. It speaks of the futility of all our endeavours, the transience of all human accomplishments. It depicts our pursuit of even wisdom as meaningless. Why do we read this book at this time?
A deeper understanding certain elements of Kohelet, as well as a deeper understanding of Sukkot, reveal similarities between the two and enable us to appreciate why Kohelet was chosen to reflect the nature of the festival more than any other book.
Solomon, the author of this book, appears to have been embroiled in an existential crisis. He had everything material a human being could wish for. In the second chapter Solomon recounts everything he had accumulated. He had countless wealth and inestimable power. He had amassed property and developed gardens and orchards filled with all types of fruits. He had fashioned irrigation canals to supply entire forests with water. He had innumerable slaves and vast herds of livestock. He had achieved wisdom beyond what any human had ever thought possible. And his greatest accomplishment was the great Temple in Jerusalem which attracted visitors from near and far to witness its glory. And yet he found no meaning in any of it. He was depressed by the temporality of it all; he found no purpose since nothing under the sun had any permanence. Even those accomplishments which would outlast him Solomon would not be there to see. His fear of death, the one thing he could not conquer, had driven him to attempt and overcome his mortality in all of these ways and he found all these attempts to be futile. He could not prevail over death.
But Solomon did find his answer. Solomon ultimately overcame his obsession with death and this is reflected in his writings in Kohelet. The Hebrew word for joy is simcha. This word appears 16 times in the Torah. Once in each of the first four books of the Torah and 12 times in Deuteronomy. Yet in Kohelet, seen as a depressing narrative, the word appears 17 times, making joy a more prominent theme in Kohelet than it is in the Torah. Happiness is the one way through which Solomon found he could beat death. Rejoicing with the wife one loves, enjoying today and not thinking about tomorrow, all emphasized in the 9th chapter, those are the keys to this conquest. One has to live in the moment if one is to transcend the mortality of life.
And this is precisely the idea of Sukkot. We practice the idea of living in the moment thereby achieving the joy that defines Sukkot. The basic halachic definition of a Sukkah is that it is a temporary structure, here today and gone tomorrow. Like a human being in the temporary dwelling of a body, we step into the temporary structure of a Sukkah and embrace that temporality, thinking only about here and now, an oasis of joy surrounded by a tempest of trouble and heartache. This momentary joy is the one thing that is stronger than death, the lesson eventually discovered by Solomon. It is precisely through sitting in this rickety, windblown structure that our joy can become whole.
There is a famous dispute cited in the Talmud probing what the festival of Sukkot commemorates. “In order that your generations know that I made the children of Israel to sit in Sukkot when I took them out of Egypt.” (Leviticus 23:43) Rabbi Eliezer posits that the our Sukkah commemorates the clouds of glory which surrounded the Israelites throughout their sojourn in the wilderness. Rabbi Akiva maintains that the Torah means it literally, and the Mitzvah of Sukkah dwelling commemorates the actual Sukkah structures in which our ancestors dwelled in the wilderness.
Both positions are problematic. If Rabbi Eliezer is correct, why does the Torah not simply say clouds? Why mask the true meaning if the reference is to the clouds of glory? And Rabbi Akiva’s position doesn’t fare much better. What significance is there to the fact that the Israelites dwelled in huts? Is there some miracle in that choice of abode? Even if there were some miracle in that, it is factually incorrect! The children of Israel lived in tents, not huts. Balaam’s blessing articulates the beauty of the formation of tents of Israel’s settlements.
Rabbi Sacks explains that the discussion in the Talmud does not actually revolve around the dwellings of the children of Israel but the dwelling of God in the wilderness. Sukkah refers to the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert, over which a cloud constantly hovered. Rabbi Eliezer maintains that the Festival of Sukkot commemorates that cloud while Rabbi Akiva believes that Sukkot commemorates the structure of the Tabernacle. Both agree that it is not the dwellings of the children of Israel but the House of God in the Wilderness which we are commemorating.
Solomon tried to make permanent this House of God. He moved God’s dwelling from its “tent of meeting” to a permanent structure of cedar and stone. But God had never asked to be moved. When David informed the prophet Nathan that he intended to build a house for God Nathan had a prophecy from God. “Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day; I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, why have you not built me a house of cedar?” (Second book of Samuel 7:5-7)
In the first half of Solomon’s life, as documented in Kohelet, Solomon thought death could be overcome by permanence. He was therefore troubled that the house of God was a temporary structure and he set out to correct this and established a permanent structure for God. Later in life Solomon came to realize that there is no permanence. the Temple he had built as a permanent home for God was destroyed twice. Yet the tent, the temporary house of God which all of our synagogues emulate, is timeless and indestructible. It is precisely the temporal which transcends mortality. It is the Sukkah that provides this environment, the perfect condition for rejoicing.