With the full moon on October 4, we greet the Festival of Sukkot. (Leviticus [23:34]). Jews around the world will gather at their congregations or homes to dwell in the Sukkah, to study and eat and congregate under the frail structures that are built to symbolize the “booths” of the Wilderness experience. The symbolism of the Festival is multifaceted; for this represents the “harvest” festival; as if we are reminded that we all hope to harvest the fruits of our own life in the Autumn of our years. Like frail nature of the structures call to mind, for many, the fragility of life itself. On the Sabbath that comes in the middle of the Festival we are to read from the Book of Ecclesiastes, the majority of whose verses can be interpreted as a somewhat cynical view of life. Is this all a vain attempt to acquire? Is it all nothingness? Futility? (the Hebrew “chavel”). Indeed, the 1st chapter of Ecclesiastes, a beautiful piece of literature, reminds us that what was will be again, that there is “nothing new under the sun” (1:9). And in perhaps one of the most famous chapters of Bible, chapter 3, we are reminded that there “is a time for experience under heaven” (3:1). Perhaps the most challenging chapter of the book is 12 in which the author laments his growing older. The chapter is a rather stark view of what it means to age. Yet we read this book on Sukkot. The last verses of the book return to a Biblical theme that, despite it all, one must follow the laws and ways of God.
Ecclesiastes is a wonderful book. It is filled with challenges and a fertile field for discussion. It challenges us, especially as we age, to look seriously at our life. Has it all been for naught? Has our life been futile? Or, is one of the hidden messages of the book that we are part of something beyond our own self. If it is true that we are part of a gradually unfolding experience, an experience that we may not fully comprehend, then we can understand that we really are part of something greater than just us. Isn’t this part of what we are searching for? If there really is nothing new, or if everything that is once was, then what is the sense of our living? Rather, what I suggest may be beneath the surface of the text is an understanding that each of us does have a unique opportunity to creat a life and world that has meaning for us. It is emptiness if we think of our self only, as the be-all and end-all of life experience. If we can see ourselves , however, as part of something greater, as part of some flow of eternal life, then what we do and who we are can make a difference.
In a new book by Rabbi Naomi Levy, she notes a mystical concept known as “rishima”. “It means the imprint a life experience leaves on you. If you endure something and then you just forget about it–if it doesn’t change you in some way, if you don’t learn anything from it-then it’s as if the event never happened, as if your life is vanished behind you. But if you go through something and it leaves an impact on you-if you grow from it, learn from it, change from it-then even a challenging time becomes a blessed teacher.” (“Einstein and The Rabbi”. Naomi Levy. Flatiron Books.2017. p..224). We are of an age that we spend a good amount of time reflecting upon the experiences we have had in life. This time of life, and this season of the year, is that time. Our experiences define and make up who we are. Hopefully, as we reflected during the High Holidays and in our Sukkah, we can draw upon those life experiences and learn from them so as to make the time we have sacred. Life is fragile and time we cannot control. But our lives have meaning and our life experiences serve as graphic and bold teachers as to the blessings of life.
Chag Sameach Sukkot
Rabbi Richard F Address