Torah from around the world #135

Torah Commentary for Chol Hamoed Sukkot (Kohelet)


Rabbi Dr Charles H Middleburgh

, Director of Jewish Studies at

Leo Baeck College

, London, and rabbi to the

Cardiff Reform Synagogue

in Cardiff, Wales.

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth,

while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh,

when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;

While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened,

nor the clouds return after the rain;

In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble,

and the grinders cease because they are few,

and those that look out of the windows be darkened;

And the doors shall be shut in the street

when the sound of the grinding is low,

and he shall rise up at the voice of a bird,

and all the daughters of music shall be brought low;

Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high,

and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish,

and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail,

because man goeth to his long home,

and the mourners go about the streets;

Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken,

or the pitcher be broken at the fountain,

or the wheel broken at the cistern;

Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was:

and the spirit shall return unto God, who gave it

. (Kohelet 12:1-7)

Those seven biblical verses, from the book of Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, in the King James Bible translation – the most poetic translation of all – are my favourite verses in the Hebrew Bible.

I love them for their poetry, I love them for the beautiful metaphor of life and old age that they describe, and I love them because my dear father, zichrono livrachah, loved them, and when I recite them I feel close to him and hear his voice reciting them in my mind.

The book of Kohelet is chosen as a reading for the Sabbath in between the beginning and end of the festival of Sukkot, known as Chol haMoed Sukkot, and is one of the five small biblical books known collectively as the Chamesh Megillot, the 5 scrolls.

The book of Kohelet is classified by biblical scholars as belonging to the genre which they call Wisdom Literature, meaning unsurprisingly that it, and other books like it, are full of wise sayings that educate and inform.  What makes Kohelet unique however is not its wisdom but its cynicism, and cynicism of a very modern kind indeed.

Now it may come as a surprise that any book in the Bible is cynical, because surely only material that is full of certainty could have passed muster in the eyes of the rabbis when they decided on the biblical canon and what was in and what was out.  Yet Kohelet, with its all pervasive jaundiced outlook made it onto the final list, as indeed did Job, which struggled with the dichotomy between random human tragedy and a world ruled by benign Providence.  The rabbis, it seemed, did not live in ivory towers but understood all too well the reality of life, the challenges which life throws at us and the attitudes of mind which those challenges engender.

Kohelet was a cynic, a dyed in the wool cynic – but it is worth remembering in this regard the old adage that ‘a cynic is what an idealist calls a realist’.  In my view it is beyond debate that much of the book of Kohelet is absolutely spot on in its comments about life, humanity’s vain chase after wealth and recognition, and about death as the ultimate leveller.

It is probably one of the most important and meaningful and relevant books in the entire Hebrew Bible, perhaps even the entire corpus of Hebrew literature, and yet it is one of the books that most Jews know least.

The scholar Robert Gordis wrote a wonderful book entitled

Kohelet – the Man and His World

, which set out to right this gap in our knowledge, and I recommend it to you all, but you don’t actually need someone else’s analysis of Kohelet, all you need to do is read the text and think about it yourself.

It is just 12 chapters long, you could read it AND think about it in an hour – so why not give it a try?

Perhaps the other major question for today around Kohelet is – why is it chosen to be read on Shabbat Chol haMoed Sukkot?

Let’s just ponder that one for a moment or two.

What is Sukkot?  The festival of booths.  The festival which, according to the Torah, reminds us of the huts that our ancestors lived in when they were wandering in the desert.  Never mind the more realistic view that says the Sukkah is a relic of the temporary structures put up in fields by farmers when they were harvesting and storing their grain!

So what do we do?  We build a sukkah of our own; a temporary structure that is up for a week and in which we eat and make Kiddush.  We erect it shortly after Yom Kippur, leaving no time to rest on our post High Holy Day laurels, and we beautify it with fresh produce, with fruit and flowers, and with luxuriant green foliage.

It is a huge effort for just one week, and then, almost as soon as it appears, it is dismantled and gone.

The Sukkah is a perfect metaphor for life itself.  Like the Sukkah life is short and very fragile.  We never know when it is going to end but that doesn’t stop us from investing as much as we can in it, doing as much as possible, achieving what we may, and striving to make it meaningful and beautiful.  It also doesn’t stop us from celebrating the joy of life and its potential for happiness and fulfilment.

That is a realistic view of Sukkot, and it is a realistic view of life:  all of which makes Kohelet a perfect choice for this festival’s intermediary days, for its realism, or cynicism if you prefer, and for its demand that each and every one of us get our priorities in order.

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, says Kohelet, in apposite words for the beginning of a year:  get your priorities sorted, invest in what is valuable, ignore what is not, make the most of every day for you never know how many you will have, never put off till tomorrow what you could do today.

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