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Sukkot and Ecclesiastes

Sukkot and Vanity

The Ecclesiastes Connection

Though Sukkot is called the "Season of Our Joy" (z'man simchateinu), it might surprise you to learn that the somber Book of Ecclesiastes (קהֶלֶת) is always recited on the Sabbath of the festival.  According to midrash, this custom arose during the First Temple period, when the Jews would visit King Solomon to pay their respects during the holidays: "And all the men of Israel assembled to King Solomon at the feast in the month Ethanim, which is the seventh month [i.e., Tishri]" (1 Kings 8:2). On that occasion the King taught the nation Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) as an antidote to the lightheartedness and gaiety associated with the festival of Sukkot. "Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet, vanity of vanities! All is vanity" (Eccl. 1:2). In light of the inevitability of death and decay, praiseworthy is the man who accepts the passing shadows of his days, and who realizes the emptiness of pleasures, wealth, and worldly ambition.  Like the sukkah itself, Kohelet reminds us of the transitory nature of life in olam ha-zeh (this world). Therefore Solomon admonishes us to soberly remember that God is our Creator and Judge: "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil" (Eccl. 12:13-14).

סוֹף דָּבָר הַכּל נִשְׁמָע אֶת־הָאֱלהִים יְרָא
וְאֶת־מִצְוֹתָיו שְׁמוֹר כִּי־זֶה כָּל־הָאָדָם
כִּי אֶת־כָּל־מַעֲשֶׂה הָאֱלהִים יָבִא בְמִשְׁפָּט עַל כָּל־נֶעְלָם
אִם־טוֹב וְאִם־רָע

sof  de·var  hak·kol  nish·ma,  et  ha-Elohim  ye·ra
ve'et  mitz·vo·tav  she·mor,  ki  zeh  kol  ha-a·dam
ki  et  kol  ma'a·seh  ha-Elohim,  ya·vi  ve·mish·pat  al  kol  ne·e·lam
im  tov  ve'im  ra

"The end of the matter; after all has been heard. Fear God
and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing,
whether good or evil."
(Eccl. 12:13-14)

Hebrew Study Card
[Note that verse 13 is repeated to avoid ending a book on a negative note]

The Holiday of Sukkot also recalls the Clouds of Glory during the Exodus.  The commandment, "You shall dwell in booths for seven days" (Lev. 23:42) is therefore said to commemorate the sheltering Presence of the Shekhinah - not to recall that the Jews lived in temporary structures in the wilderness.  God commanded the observance of this holiday "so that future generations will know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I brought them forth from Egypt" (Lev. 23:43). The miracle is the sheltering presence of God - not the booths themselves. The sukkah therefore functions as a sign that God loves us, that He delights in our well-being, and that He tenderly protects us from hardship. Were it not for God's constant care, we would perish in the wilderness of this world...

Trusting in the love of God enables us to behold His surrounding presence and glory. Thus says the LORD, "I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me into the wilderness, to a land not sown" (Jer. 2:2). Rashi notes that the goal of the Exodus (i.e., redemption) was to "bring the beloved into the King's chambers" (Song. 1:4). Still, this required that the beloved was to be "made ready" to receive God's embrace.  Therefore, when the LORD delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt, He did not take them on the "fast track" to the Promised Land (though He certainly could have done so).  No, there was a circuitous route to take, a divinely appointed wandering, a Divine "stroll of betrothal," if you will. In order to reveal Himself to the Israelites, God had to led them directly into the desert.  He sheltered them in Clouds of Glory. He embittered waters to make them sweet once again; He let stomachs growl to provide the Bread of life; He parched mouths to give Living Water from the "Rock that was struck" (1 Cor. 10:4).   God did all this to reveal to his newly redeemed people that He is the satisfaction of all their longings... He rescued his bride from the house of slavery and now wanted to refine her to receive greater revelation to come. He was "wooing" or "courting" her in order to bring her beneath a canopy of stars at Sinai, and He needed them to dwell as strangers with Him in the desert in order for them to take hold of His love... 


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