By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot
October 6, 2001
The megillah of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), which is customarily read in many synagogues this Shabbat, is - at first glance - an odd choice. How could such a sober and, at times, pessimistic text be suitable for
Sukkot, "the season of our joy"?
Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet, vanity of vanities, all is vanity (1:2).
Can this be the message of Sukkot?
Like so much of what King Shlomo/Kohelet observes, simcha also seems worthless and illusory. At times in his life, however, he thought it had value:
And I praised joy, in that a man has no better thing under the sun than to eat and to drink and to rejoice, for that will accompany him in his toil [during] the days of his life that G-d has given him under the sun (8:15).
At other times he condemns it:
I said of entertainment, 'It is frivolity', and of joy, 'What does it [accomplish]?' (UL'SIMCHA MAH ZO OSA) (2:2).
This inconsistent attitude toward simcha is but one of a number of apparent contradictions in Kohelet that nearly led to its being concealed by the Sages, in order to prevent confusion among the people (Shabbat 30b). The Talmud's resolution is to differentiate between two kinds of simcha: Kohelet praises joy that is connected with the fulfillment of Hashem's commandments (simcha shel mitzvah) but declares MAH ZO OSA, "What does it [accomplish]?" for joy that is not generated by doing the will of Hashem.
The expression MAH ZO OSA poses problems for many commentaries, because the verb AYIN-SIN-HEI ("do") has no object. Rashi's solution is to suggest an unstated
I said of entertainment, 'It is frivolity', and of joy, 'What [good] does it?'
Prof. Mordechai Zer-Kavod (1901-1977), who authored the Da'at Mikra commentary on Kohelet for the Mossad HaRav Kook Tanach, proposes another explanation, based on Saadia Gaon (882-942). With reference to Rut 2:19, he shows that AYIN-SIN-HEI can sometimes mean "remain." Therefore, his translation is:
I said of entertainment, 'It is frivolity', and of joy, 'How long does it last?'
Kohelet Rabbah says that when Elisheva bat-Amminadav, wife of Aharon, saw her quadruple joy - her husband become Kohen Gadol, her four sons Kohanim, her brother-in-law Moshe king, her brother Nachshon head of the tribal princes - turn to grief when her two older sons Nadav and Avihu died performing an unauthorized service (Vayikra 10), she lamented:
UL'SIMCHA MAH ZO OSA --- and of joy, how long does it last?
Even when simcha is worthwhile and wholesome, it is fleeting.
At first glance, Kohelet seems to recommend that the wise avoid all joy:
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of joy (7:4).
However, as Rashi and Ibn-Ezra explain, this verse means that the truly wise are always aware of the fact that they will die, while fools act as if they were immortal. Even when they are in the midst of simcha, the wise are conscious of life's finiteness, and thus their simcha is profound.
Does the brevity of life's joys make them tragic mockeries, or does it enhance their meaning? Does the limitedness of life itself make it pointless, or does it focus its urgency?
Clearly, the answers lie in our attitude. Kohelet says:
Better is the end of a thing than its beginning; better is the patient of spirit than the proud of spirit (7:8)
Metzudat David (begun by R. David Altschuler and completed by his son Yechiel, 18th Century) explains this verse in terms of foresight: the end is superior to the beginning since the outcome is not known at the beginning, whereas at the end all is known. Similarly, the ability to delay anger is based on the capacity to see ahead and realize the "big picture," while lack of forward thinking leads to angry reactions.
Foresight is the key to true simcha, as well. Without it, there is only immediate gratification, which fades. With it, there is deep contentment.
This brings us back to Sukkot. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni I:654; Pirkei d'Rabbi Kahana 189:1-2) notes that simcha is not mentioned by the Torah at all in connection with Pesach, but it is mentioned once (Devarim 16:11) regarding
Shavuot and three times (Vayikra 23:40; Devarim 16:14, 15)in the context of Sukkot. This parallels the agricultural development of the land of Israel: it is only at Sukkot, when the entire cycle of farming is complete, that the Israeli farmer is totally joyful; until then, the joy of the grain-harvests is muted by the anxiety of what is still undone. Sukkot is "the season of our joy" because it comes at the end, a time when all worries (including the worries of forgiveness during the Days of Awe) have vanished.
Prof. Zer-Kavod connects the custom of reading Kohelet during Sukkot with R. Yonatan's observation in Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1, that the three stages in Shlomo's life are reflected in his three books:
Shir HaShirim is the book of youthful celebration,
Mishlei is the book of thoughtful middle age and Kohelet is the book of sober old age. Similarly, the festivals parallel the cycle of life, and both Kohelet and Sukkot come at the end, when all is complete.
Indeed, Kohelet is the book of the good end:
The end of the matter, when all has been heard, is fear G-d and keep His commandments, for that is the whole of man (12:13).
It is because "its beginning is words of Torah and its end is words of Torah" that Kohelet was not concealed by the Sages (Shabbat 30b). A good beginning requires a good end to be of value.
Simcha that is a goal in itself is transitory and hollow, but simcha that is the result of working toward a worthwhile aim - and there is no greater accomplishment than the fulfillment of Hashem's commandments - is meaningful and permanent.
May all our joys be like the joy of Sukkot, - the joy without worries, the joy of achievement.