Ra’anana Community Kollel
The Joy of Kohelet
Rabbi Aharon Meir Goldstein
All of the Shalosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals share the characteristic of being periods of simcha - joy. In the tefillah for the Shalosh Regalim we thank Hashem for giving us moadim l’simcha - special times of joy. In fact there is a specific mitzvah of v’samachta b’chagecha - to rejoice in the festivals. But each holiday also has its own unique characteristic, which specifically describes its individual essence. Pesach, which celebrates Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, and our being freed from slavery, is z’man chairutainu, the time of our freedom. Shavu’ot is z’man matan torateinu, the time of our receiving the gift of the Torah. Succot is z’man simchatainu, the time of our joy. In other words, although all the festivals are periods of joy, Succot is particularly joyous.
On each one of the festivals, we read one of the megilot that is appropriate for that festival. On Pesach, we read Shir HaShirim, the story of Hashem’s great love for the Jewish People, which was first expressed when he took the Jews out of Egypt. On Shavu’ot we read Rut which tells of Rut’s personal Kabbalat HaTorah and which teaches us that chessed is the essence of Torah. And on Succot -Z’man Simchatainu - the time of our joy, we read Kohelet.
The basic theme of Kohelet is the futility of human endeavor and the vacuity of human existence. It is hardly a message that can inspire joy. How then are we to understand the choice of Kohelet as the megilah to be read on Succot?
If one examines the text of Kohelet, one notices several key phrases which recur throughout the megilah .One such phrase is tachat ha’shemesh - under the sun - which is repeated twenty-nine times. Interestingly enough, it is never found anywhere else in Tanach. At first glance, the phrase is just Shlomo HaMelech's way of referring to the entirety of existence on this Earth. But what is the significance of referring to this world as tachat hashemesh.
The world in which we live, the world in which we walk and talk and breathe and eat and sleep, is the world that is under the sun. It is not the entirety of existence, not even the entirety of physical existence. There are things out there that we cannot reach or even approach. And these elements, like the sun, which are beyond our reach, can have a dominant role in our environment. We live in a world of limits, in a world that remains “under the sun”.
A great amount of human effort is expended trying to find ways to escape these limits. People seek to amass wealth or power or wisdom in order to assert control over their environment. Human beings seek to build powerful and impressive structures in order to create something of permanence in a world of transience. But ultimately there is nothing new under the sun. We are controlled by our environment; we cannot control our environment. The most permanent looking structures can collapse in a matter of minutes. Human life remains fragile, precarious and in the long run, temporary. This then is the futility of which Kohelet speaks.
The path to true joy does not lie in trying to escape our limits. Such efforts are doomed to failure and can only result in disappointment. We cannot master our environment. We cannot ensure our own security and well-being. True joy can only come from understanding that G-d created our environment and that he can provide for all our needs. The limits in this world are not obstacles to be overcome but rather part of G-d's plan for us to reach our spiritual potential.
“Lema’an yeidu doroteichem ki bisuccot hoshavti et Bnei Yisrael bihotzi otam meieretz Mitzrayim.” When the Bnei Yisrael - the Children of Israel - were traveling in the desert, the world’s harshest environment, G-d took care of all their physical needs. And so Succot, our celebration of G-d’s providence is z’man simchatainu - the time of our joy. On Succot we do not seek to control our environment. We live in booths that are open to the elements. They must be built tachat hashemesh - under the sun - not inside a building, nor even under a thickly branched tree. The sechach - the roof of the succah - must be constructed so as to allow the rain in. The succah is not built to be a permanent structure but as a dirat arai- a temporary dwelling.
The Zohar calls the succah tzilta d’hemnuta - the shade of faith. Living in the succah, we accept Hashem’s control over our lives and our environment. We read Kohelet to expose the vanity of our normal attempts at escaping the limits Hashem has imposed on us. On Succot we escape the frustration of our usual pursuit of happiness and allow ourselves the experience of true joy.