Kohelet ( ecclesiastes) and Joy

Introspection on the High Holydays reveals the fissures and the cracks; joy on Sukkot enables the healing and the growth.
(excerpted from Moshe Kempinski’s upcoming book “ Accessing Inner Joy, the biblical Festivals)

We have entered into and experienced the month of Tishrei as a period of great soul searching and introspection. We have hopefully sensed how the purifying fire of the Day of Atonement has cleansed the very vessels of our souls.

The vessels are pure but nevertheless are broken from the experience. Only spiritual joy can rejuvenate and repair the broken in spirit.

Introspection reveals the fissures and the cracks; joy enables the healing and the growth.

“Seven days shall you keep a feast unto HaShem your God in the place which HaShem shall choose; because HaShem your G-d shall bless you in all your increase, and in all the work of your hands, and you shall be altogether joyful [VeHayitem Ach Sameach].”

How can one be commanded to be joyful? How can one walk out from under the burden of a renewed awareness of our limitations and be joyful? How can one attain joy when, as a people, our history is so replete with events that are the antitheses of joy?

Clearly being given the opportunity to fulfill the will of our Divine beloved is a source of great joy. We are not being commanded to be joyful as much as we are being told a fact. We will be joyful.

That is clear as one wanders through the streets and watch the people of this land buying the four species of the holiday. They are joyful because they have been given the opportunity to bring a gift to their beloved Creator.

Yet it is during this holiday we will read the cynical book of Kohelet or Ecclesiastes. What must we learn from that.

Each of the Jewish festivals is characterized by the reading of one of the Biblical scrolls. On Pesach(Passover), we read Shir Hashirim/Song Of Songs. During Shavuot, the book of Ruth is read. On Sukkot, we read Kohelet/Ecclesiastes.

The latter is clearly a book characterized by great sobriety and skepticism. The first words of Kohelet, “havel havelim ha-kol hevel, futility of futilities, everything is futile,” imply that no matter what Man does, his efforts will always prove to be in vain.

The word hevel/futile appears 37 times throughout the book.

There are those who teach that since this period of Sukkot falls during the time of the great harvest, a time of great joy, the book of Kohelet is seen as a tool for tempering and moderation.

There are others who see the book of Kohelet as a work infused with optimism and happiness. In the Yalkut Shimoni we read:

“R. Yonathan said, first Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) was composed, followed by Mishlei (Proverbs) and then Kohelet. Shir Hashirim represents youthful optimism and rejoicing. Mishlei, written later in King Solomon’s life, represents the acquired experience of middle age. The book of Kohelet expresses the acquired wisdom of old age.”

The word hevel/futile appears 37 times throughout the book of Kohelet.

This helps to understand a verse which seems to epitomize cynical futility:

“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of joy.” ( Ecclesiastes 7:4

Both the medieval commentators, Rashi and Ibn-Ezra, explain the verse is teaching us that the truly wise are always aware of the fact that they are mortal and that their time is finite.

Fools dance through life as if they have been gifted with immortality. The wise understand, even in the midst of joy, there is finiteness to life.This makes their joy more profound than fools.

In his book, Mei HaShiloach, the Izhbitzer Rebbe (1800-1854) relates that, in his wiser years, King Solomon, speaks of the futility of some of life’s pursuits and mortality as a tool to help individuals find the true source of joy in this world.

“The end of the matter, when all has been heard, is fear G-d and keep His commandments, for that is the whole duty of man.”

When all is said and done, we are bidden to connect to the infinite purpose of creation and rise above the trivial. Therein lies the true joy of this festival and of life in its entirety.

The sukkah itself is built for a mere seven days, yet no effort is neglected in order to decorate it and beautify it. Life is similar to the sukkah.

Our time is limited, so spare no effort to fill it with beauty and holiness.

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