Futility, an exercise or blessing in disguise

Shabbat Chol HaMoed

Exodus 33:12-34:26

Numbers 29:23-31

Additional reading from Ecclesiastes

It is difficult to forget my first encounter with the biblical book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). Although it is traditional to read Kohelet liturgically on Shabbat Chol HaMoed — the Shabbat that falls in the middle of the festival of Sukkot — I never read it growing up in my parents’ shul-going, traditional home. It was not until I was in college that I first heard Kohelet chanted in the synagogue and then, in some shock, went home to read it for myself again and again.

Talk about an eye-opening experience. I was completely at home with the discourse of the Torah, with its stories and law codes. I thrilled to the exhortations of the prophets, chanted in the Haftorot, demanding of me the highest level of ethical behavior in pursuit of God’s promise of a redeemed world. But in Kohelet I found neither of these. With the exception of the final two lines of the text, on the surface Kohelet contains no piety, no spiritual uplift, no feeling of awe or love, no feeling of connectedness to the Divine.

What one does find in Kohelet is a chastening sense of dismay and alienation that comes from realizing the futility of life. Futility is the central theme of the book. Wealth is useless, pleasure is futile, greed is senseless and all our hard work is worthless, it has “no value under the sun.” (2:11) Wisdom and knowledge are ultimately no better than madness and folly. And all of this is the case because, ultimately, we die.

Kohelet has a strong belief in predestination. “The actions of even the righteous and the wise are determined by God. Even love! Even hate! Man knows none of these in advance.” (9:1)

God brings all things to pass and nothing can be changed. What happened in the past will happen again, and what is to happen in the future is already ordained. There is justice, there is wickedness. So it has been; so it will always be. There is nothing new under the sun.

In the face of this disturbing assessment, how are we to live? How are we to act? Kohelet’s answer is, fundamentally, “There is nothing worthwhile for a man but to eat and drink and afford himself enjoyment with his means.” (2:24)

If this sounds like the musings of a depressed Greek Epicurean philosopher, it is worth noting that scholars believe Kohelet to be written by a Jewish author before the middle of the second century BCE, at the advent of the Hellenistic period. It is undoubtedly (despite the author’s claim that he is King Solomon) an early attempt to create a confluence between Jewish and Greek thought. No wonder there is so little recognizable traditional biblical belief in its pages.

Is it odd, then, that our sages (who may or may not have known of its origins) decreed that we should chant Kohelet during the festival of Sukkot, which is the “season of our extreme joy”? Sukkot invites our gratitude for all the harvested abundance and affluence we enjoy in our lives. At the same time, by moving out into the sukkah, eating and sleeping in it, we get to experience and acknowledge how fragile life is, how life might be ended suddenly by a strong gust of wind. Both these themes are to be found, as well, in Kohelet.

Kohelet leaves us with an anxious sense of urgency to find meaning in life. Stunned by the description of futility of normal life, Kohelet, like the sukkah, encourages us to live life with a new consciousness. There will be warmth and there will be cold, there will be goodness and there will be wickedness, there will be joy and there will be suffering. Ultimately, there is nothing but the experience of this moment, and every moment counts. The question is: What blessing can we harvest from this very moment?

Rabbi Lavey Derby is spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.