Sefer Kohelet (The Book of Ecclesiastes) might seem like an unlikely choice of books to associate with Sukkot, Zman Simkhateinu – the time of our rejoicing. It is at times morose and cynical, a book intended to come to terms with the meaning of human existence, frequently reaching disturbing conclusions. The Sages thrashed over its religious significance and debated over whether it had a place in the biblical canon or not. In the end, we should feel indebted to them for including it, for in all of its cynicism, it frequently points us in the direction of more meaningful lives.
One verse sticks out in my mind for its woeful cynicism: “As he came out of his mother’s womb, naked will he return to go as he came, and nothing will bear off from his toil that he brings in his hands.” (Ecclesiastes 9:14) This verse speaks to the seeming futility of existence, certainly not the sort of picture one would want to paint for Sukkot!
A midrash on this verse attempts to thrash out what this verse is trying to say, using a mashal (a parable) to do it:
Geniva said: [This can be likened] to a fox who finds a vineyard which was fenced around on all its sides. And there was there a single hole that the fox could enter through but he was not able. What did he do? He fasted for three days until he was thin and weak and entered the vineyard through that hole and ate until he became fat. He wanted to leave but now he was unable to pass through [the hole]. So, he set about fasting for another three days until he was thin and weak and returned to what he was before and left the vineyard. When he got out, he turned his face toward the vineyard and looked at it. He said: “Vineyard, vineyard, how wonderful you are and how wonderful are your fruits and everything about you is marvelous, but what benefit are you to me? Just as a person enters you so he or she leaves you. Such is the way of this world, ‘As he came out of his mother’s womb, naked will he return to go as he came.’” (Adapted from Midrash Kohelet Rabbah (ch. 1-6) 5:14, Hirshman ed. p. 324-326)
Geniva, a second-generation Babylonia sage from the period of the Talmud and a student of Rav, argues that this verse is meant to give people perspective on life. In a very colorful way, he seems to say that when we die, we cannot take with us all of the material blessings of this world. Consequently, material things should not be the focus of our energies. We have to decide what things we can really take with us and what things we really want to leave behind. Our task in life is to determine what really are our true blessings?
This message resonates perfectly with the meaning of Sukkot – the festival of our rejoicing. We take our joy and celebrate it in a precarious booth – a sukkah, with its thatch roof, open to the elements, as a reminder of our impermanence and rejoice in the realization that material things are not the true source of joy nor our true legacy. Life is for making meaning and sharing it with others.