I once - and only once - went on a five-day silent meditation retreat. As I'm sure you can imagine, I wasn't very good at it. But the strangest memory I have of that retreat was leaving - leaving was unexpectedly overwhelming. There was noise everywhere. People were chattering aimlessly, just pouring out words without any sense of filter or care. And people were just going about everyday life, as if everyday life was not completely absurd.
That first day of being back in life is similar to how I often feel in the first days of Sukkot, and it is especially true of this year, in which things have been just so serious for so long. Sukkot begins just a scant few days after the closing of Yom Kippur, and they are in some ways polar opposites as holy days. Yom Kippur demands that we confront some of the most difficult aspects of life, such as mortality and the inevitability of failure - things that we have been confronting this year in a completely different way. And then Sukkot comes barrelling in. Sukkot, the Season of our Rejoicing. The central holiday of joy and celebration. And I’m never quite ready for it - I end up feeling once again like I’m sitting on that bus on my way back from a week of awful and awesome silence.
But there is one aspect of Sukkot that I think speaks directly to this: Megillat Kohelet, or ‘Ecclesiastes’, which we usually read on the intermediate Shabbat. This year, we will be reading it on Sh’mini Atzeret. Please forgive me for bringing it to your consciousness early. Here’s the thing about Kohelet: if you asked someone who understood Sukkot but didn’t know about Kohelet to choose which biblical book we read today, I think that Kohelet would be at the bottom of the list. Kohelet, after all, is a profoundly cynical book.
Its opening line is all you need to hear to know that Kohelet is an unlikely book to read on the Season of our Rejoicing:
א) דִּבְרֵי֙ קֹהֶ֣לֶת בֶּן־דָּוִ֔ד מֶ֖לֶךְ בִּירוּשָׁלִָֽם׃ (ב) הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃
‘The words of Kohelet, son of David, King in Jerusalem: Vanity of vanities! - said Kohelet. Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.’
That word he keeps using, ‘hevel’, more precisely means vapour. Everything is vapour, according to Kohelet. It’s all just... nothing.
So why would Kohelet be the scroll of Sukkot, of the happiest festival in our calendar?
I’d like to offer an understanding of our encounter with Kohelet, especially for a year like ours: Kohelet’s conclusion, which he keeps cycling back to throughout the book. Here’s the version from chapter 3: ‘So I realised that the only worthwhile thing there is for them is to enjoy themselves and to do what is good in their lifetimes; also, that whenever a person does eat and drink and find goodness in his labour, that is a gift of God.’
Kohelet’s conclusion, in all of his deep pessimism, is that we should grasp joy when we can find it. That there is no good to be found in spiralling into cynicism, even if Kohelet does think that his bleak ideas are reflections of reality. I hear Kohelet saying to us ‘come and join me in this dark place - but for goodness’ sake, don’t stay here; this is no place to live’.
The writer Jenny Lawson is, I think, a modern Kohelet. She wrote a book about her struggle with depression, which she entitled: Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things. She writes - and I’m censoring a few choice words:
‘I am DONE with sadness. … I’VE HAD IT. I AM GOING TO BE FURIOUSLY HAPPY, OUT OF SHEER SPITE. … I’ve often thought that people with severe depression have developed such a well for experiencing extreme emotion that they might be able to experience extreme joy in a way that ‘normal’ people also might never understand, and that’s what FURIOUSLY HAPPY is all about.’ She goes on to say: ‘I can grab onto each moment of joy and live in those moments because I have seen the bright contrast from dark to light and back again. I am privileged to recognize that the sound of laughter is a blessing and a song, and to realize that the bright hours spent with my family and friends are extraordinary treasures to be saved…’
Jenny Lawson and Kohelet are talking about the importance of choosing joy. And that, I think, is the experience of Sukkot: choosing joy, using the depth of the experience of Yom Kippur, and turning it on its head - deciding that deep aching can give us an understanding of how rich rejoicing can be. Of seeing joy not as an accident of life going well, but instead as something that requires work and is worth working for.
I wish you a furiously happy Sukkot. We all deserve it. Shabbat shalom, and chag sameach.