What the Hevel? Thoughts on Kohelet

Utter futility! – said Kohelet – Utter futility! All is futile! (Kohelet 1:2)

Ecclesiastes is not a very cheerful book. In fact, the Talmud (Shabbat 30b) teaches that the Rabbis wanted to hide Kohelet because it contains such contradictory and difficult teachings. (I encourage you to study it and see for yourself.) The most sobering element is the recurrence of the word, “hevel,” translated as futility, vanity, folly, or the like. If we read repeatedly how worthless things are, I can see why we might want to hide the book.

Hevel, however, can also mean vapor or smoke. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the word connotes transitoriness and a deviation from continuity. Smoke and vapor do not last; they dissipate. In this way, the hevel of Kohelet can be understood as a reminder that nothing lasts forever – neither the good nor the not so good. Rabbi Rami Shapiro puts hevel into context well: That life is a series of moments, each one flowing into the next, doesn’t mean life is meaningless, only that life is fluid.

Kohelet, with all its hevel, fits neatly into our celebration of Sukkot. The Talmud (Sukkah 28a) teaches: Tzay mi’dirat keva v’sheiv b’dirat aray – Leave your permanent dwelling and live in a temporary one. Moving into the Sukkah encourages us to set aside the mentality that everything needs to be set and formal. Instead, we need to “go with the flow” and be more flexible. We should value what we have and take advantage of each opportunity to enjoy life, help others, and live meaningfully. After all, it’s all hevel – fluid.

It is easy to get into a keva mindset and think that the way things are is the way they will remain. When the going is good, we don’t always appreciate how good, and when things aren’t so good, we think that, too, is the new normal. Going from the seeming permanence of everyday life in the home to the temporary Sukkah is an opportunity to appreciate every single moment for what it is and enjoy the simpler things in life.

An American executive was at the pier of a coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one local fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. The local replied, “only a little while.” The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The fisherman said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?” The fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.”

The American smelled an opportunity to share some of his expertise, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA, and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?” To which the American replied, “15 – 20 years.” “But what then?” asked the Mexican. The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!” “Millions – then what?” The American said, “Then you would retire. You could move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

It’s all hevel.

On Sukkot, we have an incredible yet simple opportunity. We move outside to a simpler life. We eat, drink, and spend time with family and friends. We can make some memories and remember to try and make more such opportunities more often all year long. That, too, is the message of hevel.

About the Author
Rabbi Elie Weinstock is Senior Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach in Long Island. A believer in a Judaism that is accessible to all, he prefers "Just Judaism" to any denominational label.