With Rabbi Naftali Schiff.
The festival of Sukkot is referred to by a number of names, perhaps most notably as ‘the time of our rejoicing.’
After the serious and sombre high holidays, Sukkot provides us with a chance to express ourselves through the medium of simcha (happiness). The rabbis explain that once we have passed through the days of awe, we can be confident that our prayers and teshuva have been accepted and that itself is cause for great happiness.
In biblical times, Sukkot marked the end of the harvest season and the farmer would rejoice in his bountiful crop and appreciate that it was a gift from God. It therefore seems somewhat strange that on these happy days we would choose to read the sobering words of the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes).
In most synagogues, however, this megilla is read just before the Torah reading on Shabbat Chol HaMoed. The megilla begins with the famous verse ‘futility of futilities – said Kohelet – futility of futilities, all is futile’. This seeming sense of existential angst is repeated a number of times through the book’s 12 chapters. Kohelet asks the questions that mankind has grappled with since time immemorial – ‘What is life all about?’ ‘What am I here for?’ ‘What am I liv- ing for?’
Rather than give glib answers, Kohelet shares his struggle with us. He turns to wisdom and tells us that it is but ‘vexation of the spirit.’ He ‘ventured to stimulate his body with wine,’ ‘acted in grand style, built houses and vineyard … owned more possessions than all of my predecessors’ ‘amassed silver and gold’ and still determines it all to be futile.
Kohelet’s basic message is that this world is transient and death is the great equaliser. No matter what we amass in this world, we cannot take it with us. On Sukkot, we leave our houses and move into a temporary dwelling with a flimsy roof, as if to tell ourselves that ultimately there are no guarantees that the physical world can bring us true security.
We move into the Sukkah, under the schach, under God’s own protection. This is the message of Kohelet. At a time when we are liable to get carried away we are re- minded to maintain our sense of perspective that the physical world is here for us to enjoy but will not last forever. Rather, we create our own eternity through leading a spiritual life, one where we embark on developing a relationship with the Almighty.
• Rabbi Naftali Schiff is executive director, Aish UK