Culture, Religion, Torah

All these impermanent things: The Sukkot wisdom of Kohelet

by Rabbi Rami Shapiro

On the Shabbat of Sukkot, this year October 19, we read the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes.

But why read a book that famously disclaims the “vanity” of life on the holiday called “time of our rejoicing?”

The answer lies in understanding and superseding a bad translation and finding the true teaching of “hevel,” the Hebrew word translated as “vanity.”

First, though, we need to understand what the Jewish tradition means when it calls Sukkot “time of our rejoicing.”

Sukkot celebrates fertility in the midst of fragility. It encourages us to live joyously in a fluid world by profoundly confronting the impermanence and uncertainty that defines the human condition.

We dwell in fragile sukkot (huts) open to the elements to remind ourselves that there is nothing we can build that will protect us from the chaos (tohu va-vohu, Genesis 1:2) of reality. We decorate our sukkot with the bounty of the fall harvest to remind ourselves that fragility doesn’t negate fertility. We wave the lulav and etrog, palm branch and citron, symbolizing the necessary unity of masculine (lulav) and feminine (etrog). We invite our ancestors to join us in the sukkah (ushpizin) to remind us that while our survival isn’t assured it does indeed have a long history. We invite friends and neighbors to celebrate with us in the sukkah as if to say, “While there is no external structure that can protect us from the contingencies of life, cultivating loving relationships can help us navigate the madness when it comes. And we study Koheleth, the Book of Ecclesiastes, as the quintessential Torah of living well in an impermanent and uncertain world.

The key to understanding Koheleth and Sukkot is in the first of the book’s teachings, “Hevel havalim. Hakol hevel” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). The standard translations of hevel—vanity, meaninglessness and futility—distract us from the deeper meaning of the term: “breath” or “vapor”. Hevel appears some seventy times in the Hebrew Bible in reference to the brevity of human life. Koheleth isn’t telling us that our lives are futile and meaningless, but that they are empty of permanence. So here is how I translated it in my recent exploration and translation of Kohelet, The Tao of Solomon:

“Emptying! Emptying upon emptying! The world is fleeting of form, empty of permanence, void of surety, without certainty. Like a breath breathed once and gone, all things rise and fall. Understand emptiness, and tranquility replaces anxiety. Understand emptiness, and compassion replaces jealousy. Understand emptiness, and you will cease to excuse suffering and begin to alleviate it.”

Why does hevel awaken us to tranquility, compassion, and the desire to alleviate suffering? Because hevel frees us from the delusion of permanence. We are anxious because we desire permanence and jealous because we imagine another has achieved permanence. And we excuse another’s suffering because we don’t want to admit its cause—the desire for permanence in an impermanent world. Sitting in the sukkah, appreciating the bounty of the harvest and yet knowing that a strong wind can bring the entire structure crashing down around us, we are invited to see the emptying of “this” into “that” and “that” into “this”:

Moments of birth and moments of death;
moments of planting and moments of uprooting;
moments of killing and moments of healing;
moments of knocking down and moments of building up;
moments of mourning and moments of dancing;
moments of casting stones and moments of gathering stones;
moments of embracing and moments of departing;
moments of seeking and moments of forsaking;
moments of keeping and moments of discarding;
moments of tearing and moments of mending;
moments of silence and moments of speech;
moments of love and moments of hate;
moments of war and moments of peace.
Moments and the passing of moments—this is life. (Shapiro, The Tao of Solomon 3:1-8)

The question we ask in the sukkah is this: What moment am I in as an individual? What moment are we in as a family, a community, a religion, a nation?

Our answers may differ, but whatever the answer we give, the follow-up question is the same: Am I living wisely in this moment? If this is a moment of mourning, am I embracing grief or am I resisting grief? If this is a moment of tearing, am I desperately holding together that which demands to be torn, or am I seeking the wisdom and perhaps beauty in the tearing itself?

Living in harmony with the moment, no matter how painful that moment may be, is the only way to free yourself for the next moment. And what is the life toward which Koheleth points? A simple life where people are empowered to eat simply, drink moderately, work joyously, and love freely (Ecclesiastes 2:24; 4:8–12).

There is no escaping the impermanence of life, but there is a way to navigate it wisely and well. This is the wisdom Koheleth imparts. This is the wisdom Sukkot offers us when we study Koheleth with friends in the Sukkah of hevel.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s most recent book is The Tao of Solomon: Unlocking the Perennial Wisdom of Ecclesiastes

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