My father-in-law was a warm-hearted man who took each day with good cheer and had a smile for everyone. The family therefore chose as the inscription on his grave, “Enjoy life for it is the gift of God”. It’s a quotation, more or less, from Ecclesiastes, which is customarily read this week (in addition to the Torah reading from the Book of Exodus and the prophetic reading from the book of Ezekiel), on the Shabbat that falls during the holiday of Sukkot, the seven-day Festival of Booths.
Both the text and the festival draw attention to the interplay between joy and fragility, meaning and futility, which make life so poignant, so precious, and at times so tragic.
The leitmotif of Ecclesiastes is the line best known in English in the King James translation: “‘Vanity of vanities’, saith the preacher, ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’” (1:2). The word rendered as “vanity” is hevel in the original Hebrew, literally “breath breathed out”. It contrasts with neshima, breath breathed in, the source of life, which is closely related to neshama (soul)–as in the phrase nishmat chaim, the soul or “breath of life” that God blew into the nostrils of the first human, transforming mere earth into a living being. Hevel, however, is merely old air after the goodness has been sucked out of it; it is worthless and useless, mere vanity.
In Ecclesiastes, the “preacher” explores one dimension of existence after another, the pursuit of wealth, wisdom, happiness, justice, and meaning. On each occasion the conclusion is the same: everything is mere hevel, vanity, including the very effort of inquiry itself. One by one virtually every facet of life is examined and then multiplied by zero, and the result, not surprisingly, is nought: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”.
If for T.S Eliot, in The Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages, “Time the destroyer is time the preserver,” to Ecclesiastes, time the giver is always also time the taker, and nothing remains that is not unravelled by its passage. Just as there is “a time for every purpose under the sun”, so there is a time for the undoing of that work: “There is a time to plant and a time to uproot what has been planted” (3:2).
Why bother? Has anything any point? One has to admire the courage of the editors of the Hebrew Bible, who, rather than excluding the texts which ask the most corrosive questions, brought the challenges articulated by such books as Job and Ecclesiastes inside the canon.
Yet there is a dimension of existence the author of Ecclesiastes insists on continuing to value, despite his scathing critique of virtually every endeavour. It consists of the most ordinary things: eat and drink, he says, for these are the gifts of God. Sweet is the well-earned sleep of the laborer. Friendship matters, otherwise who will be there to support the loner when he falls? Enjoy the companionship of the partner of your youth; it’s cold to sleep alone. One might have thought from his claim to have been king in Jerusalem and his protestations of wealth and wisdom that the author was an aristocrat through and through. But there is nothing more simple than the pleasures he recommends as life’s compensations, or than the injunction with which he concludes: “Fear God and keep God’s commandments” (12:13).
There is a profound consonance between Ecclesiastes and Sukkot, the festival during which it is read and which marks the turn of the seasons, the beginning of the fall. Like the text, the festival turns our attention to life’s most basic concerns. We leave our houses to live in booths, defined by their permeable roofs of branches, which, as those of us in London well know, are powerless to impede the rain. We are required to eat all our meals in the sukkah, even to sleep there if the nights are not penetratingly cold or miserably wet. For the duration of the festival, you must make the impermanent shelter your regular abode and your permanent home merely secondary, insists the Mishnah, the second-century rabbinic code.
Yet the sukkah should also be a place of beauty. Though it is not an absolute requirement, since ancient times it has been customary to decorate it with fruits and vegetables, the produce of the year hung on display in gratitude to God. The message is similar to that of Ecclesiastes: these are life’s simple but essential blessings. Existence is short and will soon turn for us into hevel, breath breathed out. Enjoy it, for it is beautiful, but brief.
The sukkah thus symbolises God’s protection on life’s journey. The Torah refers specifically to how God made “the Children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out from the Land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43). But Jewish history has known many other exiles, migrations, and flights from persecution. With parents who both fled Nazi Germany in their teens, I never celebrate Sukkot without thinking of the meaning and privilege of having a home and a shelter. Transcending any specific journey, the sukkah represents God’s protection on life’s pilgrimage, with all its fragility, vulnerability, and wonder.
The combination of the impact of Ecclesiastes and Sukkot is especially poignant this year. The “simple” gifts of shelter, food and drink, of the opportunity to work and afterwards sleep in peace, of knowing your family is together and safe, of having land to cultivate so that its fruits can be hung in gratitude–how far these basic blessings are today from so many.
It makes no moral sense to speak of the sukkah as God’s protection without working urgently to extend it over as many as possible of the thousands of desperate refugees seeking shelter from violence and destitution along the borders of Europe. I refuse to build my sukkah this year, or listen to Ecclesiastes, without contributing towards a shelter for at least one family who long to be able to eat and drink and put their children to bed in safety.
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is the Rabbi at New North London Synagogue and the Senior Rabbi of The Assembly of Masorti Synagogues and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism. Rabbi Wittenberg was born in Glasgow to a family of German Jewish origin with rabbinic ancestors on both sides.