Kohelet’s Identity Crisis

September 18, 2019
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This short Dvar Torah from Rabbi Sacks examines the true meaning of the festival of Succot through the lens of Kohelet, the man who declared all things meaningless... until he found meaning.

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Of all the festivals, Succot is surely the one that speaks most powerfully to our time. Kohelet is the man who had it all, the houses, the cars, the clothes, the adoring women, the envy of others. He has pursued everything this world can offer – from pleasure, to possessions, to power, to wisdom – and yet surveying the totality of his life, he can only say, in effect, “Havel havalim, hakol havel” (Kohelet 1:2) - “Everything is empty, meaningless, a mere breath.”

Kohelet’s failure to find meaning is directly related to his obsession with the words ‘I’ and ‘me’. “I built for myself, I gathered for myself, I acquired for myself: “baniti li”, “kaniti li”, “asafti li” (Kohelet 2:4-9). The more he pursues his desires, the emptier his life becomes. There's no more powerful critique of the consumer society whose idol is the Self and whose icon is the Selfie. This is the society that achieved unprecedented affluence, giving people more choice than they've ever known and yet, at the same time, has seen an unprecedented rise in alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, stress-related syndromes, depression, and attempted suicides.

A society of tourists, not pilgrims, is not one that will yield the sense of a life worth living. Of all things people have chosen to worship, the Self is the least fulfilling. A culture of narcissism quickly gives way to loneliness and despair. In the end, Kohelet found meaning in simple things.

“Sweet is the sleep of a labouring man.”

Kohelet 5:11

“Enjoy life with the woman you love.”

Kohelet 9:9

“Eat, drink, and enjoy the sun.”

Kohelet 8:15

And that really is the meaning of Succot as a whole. It's Jewishly the time we come closer to nature than any other, sitting in a hut with only leaves for a roof, taking in our hands the unprocessed fruits and foliage of the palm branch, the citron, and twigs of myrtle and leaves of willow. It's a time when we briefly liberate ourselves from the sophisticated pleasures of the city and the processed artefacts of a technological age, where we take time to recapture some of the innocence we had when we were young, when the world still had the radiance of wonder.

The power of Succot is that it takes us back to the most elemental roots of our being. You don't need to live in a palace to be surrounded by Clouds of Glory. You don't need to be gloriously wealthy to buy yourself the same leaves and fruit that a billionaire uses in worshipping God [the lulav and etrog]. Living in a succah and inviting guests to your meal, you discover that the people who've come to visit you are none other than the Ushpizin: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their wives. They have honoured you. What makes a hut more beautiful than a home is that when it comes to Succot, there's no difference between the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. We are all strangers on earth, temporary residents in God's almost eternal universe, and whether or not we're capable of pleasure, nonetheless, we can all feel joy.

And most majestically, as I've said, Succot is the festival of insecurity. It's the candid acknowledgement that there is no life without risk, yet we can face the future without fear, when we know that God is with us, in the rain that brings blessings to the earth, in the love that brought the universe and us into being, and in the resilience of spirit that allowed a small and vulnerable people to outlive the greatest empires the world has ever known.

Chag Sameach.