Kohelet and Two Types of People: A Sukkot Drash

Oct. 9, 2020


“Relax, nothing is under control.”
Adi Da Samraj

There are two different types of people in the world: Planners and those who go with the flow. Granted, there is lots of grey between those two poles, but generally we lean one way or the other.

Regardless of which type we are, life is extra stressful right now. For the planners, our lives feel out of control; we can’t predict what will be, we can’t plan further than a few days ahead, and the not knowing makes it all so much worse.

For those of us who roll with the punches, well, the punches keep on coming: They trap us in our homes, force us to plan even the simplest of errands, and maintain the same ‘sameness’ day after day. Nobody is doing great – our stress and anxiety are through the roof, and it’s hard to find comfort.

Amid this leaden chaos arrives the holiday of Sukkot – Z’man Simchateynu – the Time of Our Joy. We are commanded to live in roofless huts, be one with nature, and appreciate the fall harvest. A traditional reading on this holiday is Ecclesiastes, or in Hebrew, Kohelet. The Book of Kohelet is a pessimistic, cynical, and seemingly depressing Megillah that brings us such inspiring quotes as: “All things are full of weariness,” and “What has been, has been done and there is nothing new under the sun.” Sigh. These passages are a serious downer on what is supposed to be a happy holiday.

One of the most famous quotes is, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity” “Havel Havalim, Amar Kohelet, Havel Havalim Hakol Havel” (Ecc. 1:2). Havel, the Hebrew word used for vanity, can also be defined as futility or meaninglessness but all those definitions are pre-translated into metaphor. The actual definition of Havel is vapour or breath; like a cloud, Havel seems solid but turns to mist in our hands. Havel, looked at literally, does not mean life is futile, it means that life is ephemeral, transient, evanescent.

Kohelet goes on to philosophize about the changeability of life, postulating that no matter our wealth, career success, or fame, or even our wisdom, all of us come to the same end. So, what’s it all about, Alfie?

There is a story about King Solomon who sent his trusted minister, Benaiah, on a quest to bring back, in time for Sukkot, magic words that would make a happy man sad, and a sad man happy.

Benaiah searched everywhere from spring to summer to fall, always failing. He’d resigned himself to returning without completing the quest when he came across a poor old merchant setting up for the day. Benaiah asked the old woman if she’d heard of magic words that make happy people sad and sad people happy. The woman smiled, handed Benaiah a few words on a worn piece of paper and sent him on his way.

Benaiah found King Solomon in the sukkah and gave him the crumpled piece of paper. When King Solomon read it, he knew that Benaiah had succeeded, the words were indeed magic: Gam Zeh Ya’avor – this, too, shall pass.

Like Kohelet, Gam Zeh Ya’avor teaches us that the only constant in our lives is change. If so, perhaps reading that message when we are commanded to live in a temporary dwelling, a sukkah, makes sense. Aren’t we, in our bodies, also temporary, also sukkot? Our physical bodies act as the temporary dwelling for our souls.

Thousands of years after the destruction of one of the most solid buildings in history, the Temple, the Jewish people still construct sukkot every year. Easy to tear down, yes, but also easy to rebuild. Rabbi Jonathan Saks says, “Sukkot is about knowing that life is insecure and celebrating it not in spite of that, but because of it.”

In the end, stability is an illusion and instead, we are left with small moments of joy: “Eat your bread in gladness, drink your wine in joy…wear freshly washed clothes… enjoy happiness with a woman you love all your fleeting days” (Ecc. 9:7-9).

The moments that are hard, the moments that are great, they all eventually pass. In our quest for those moments of joy, for both the planners and the “go-with-the-flow-ers,” Psalm 118 tells us, “This is the day that G-d has made. Celebrate and rejoice in it.”

Chag Sameach.

Ilana Krygier Lapides
Ilana Krygier Lapides

Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish educator and storyteller in Calgary. She is currently attending the online Rabbinic School, the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute (JSLI) in New York, and will be ordained in December 2020.