Sukkot and Kohelet – The balance of Life
Life is a very delicate balance. We travel the fine line between highs and lows, so quickly transitioning between two states, that we barely have time to catch our breath. One minute we are floating, the next drowning, one minute we are flying through life, the next we come down to earth, all too often with a nasty bang.
I felt this full throttle last week on my journey to buy a lulav. Tired but almost ecstatic following the completion of Yom Kippur I ventured to Golders Green. It happened quickly, I was driving, then suddenly a flash of red, a jolt and then the aftermath. Endless phone calls to insurance companies, lack of mobility in the upper body, shaking and tears. I could say I went crashing into the next ditch of my life…but that would be a cliche.
In that moment I faced head-on the unpredictability of life. One moment everything is going our way, we are cruising the high life. And then as quickly as it began it is over and we are back in a trough, feeling low. In a way our Jewish yearly cycle echoes these ups and downs of life. As we enter into our new year with Rosh Hashanah we feel excitement, anticipation, we are on a metaphorical high. Then we enter a ten day period of deep introspection and contemplation of our past. When Yom Kippur hits we feel abruptly confronted by the uncertainty of our future. Already, in the first fifteen days of our year, we have faced a whirlwind of emotions.
Then we enter into Sukkot which is referred to as ‘He-Chag’, ‘The Festival’ by our rabbis. This is our time of unadulterated celebration. Yet the days of Sukkot also attempt to teach us about the balance that we need in our lives.
So what better book to read on Sukkot than the book of Kohelet, a book where balance appears to be an intrinsic theme. For once our text does not try to teach us that life is constantly perfect, but rather that reality is so often a conflict of joy and sadness, gain and loss. Whilst many view the book of Kohelet as one of the more depressing texts in our canon due to the interpretation that Kohelet regards life as futile and existence as vanity, others view it as liberating. Coming into stark contrast with so many of our other biblical narratives, Kohelet does not disguise the complexities and challenges of life. Rather Kohelet reminds us that life is fragile just like the booths that we build during this week.
During the period of Sukkot we face physical challenges alien to us for the other 51 weeks of the year. As we eat, or even dwell, in our temporary booths, we are confronted with the frailty of our material possessions. When we are exposed to the elements, are we able to stand or are we left blowing in the wind. During this week we learn the need for balance between the material and the spiritual.
We see another balance come into play during the week of Sukkot. Whilst the first and last day of Sukkot are ‘Yamim Tovim’, days when we are halakhically prohibited from work, Chol Ha-Moed Sukkot, the interim days, are open for us to continue living normally…almost. During the week of Sukkot we balance the holy and the ordinary, as we participate in ritualistic life, shaking a Lulav and Etrog and eating in a Sukkah, and yet still carrying on with our daily routines.
Reading the wisdom of Kohelet, the man who knows that there is a season for everything, has never seemed more apt. For in the words of Rabbi Reuven Firestone, a professor at Hebrew Union College: “Kohelet teaches that we need to acknowledge gratitude as we move into the new year.”
Perhaps the balance between the spiritual and the material should help us to feel grateful for the things that we have throughout the other 51 weeks of our year. Perhaps the balance between the holy and the ordinary will help us to find sparks of divine in our everyday lives. Perhaps the juxtaposition of Sukkot and Kohelet will help us to be thankful for our own gains.
The Midrashic reading of the book of Kohelet tells us that in reality the message of this book is uplifting. There is within this text a message of hope, that although we may not make sense of our lives and we may not take the paths that we predicted, we can find meaning and happiness in the twists and turns of the adventure. For every up there will be a down, for every high there will be a low, life is a delicate balance between the good bits and the not-so-good bits. The book of Kohelet does not tell us that we will gain happy endings by being perfect Torah scholars, rather it equips us for the realities of life. It would appear that in reality the book of Kohelet does not contrast greatly to the festival of Sukkot referred to by the Rabbis as Z’man Simchateinu, the season of joy.
Life throws inevitable curveballs at us as we journey down its path. Kohelet commands us to grab what is on offer, for we never know what is around the corner. We may be living the good life, feeling totally contented, and then the flash of red, the sudden jolt, the aftermath. We never know when our lives will come crashing back to reality. All we do know is that we can live in the moment and we can live with balance. We can weep or laugh when we need to, mourn or dance, for in the words of Kohelet ‘to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.’
Hannah Kingston LBC rabbinic student