2. Vanity of vanities, said Kohelet, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. 3. What gains a man from all his labor at which he labors under the sun? 4. One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides for ever. [Kohelet 1:2-4]
For Kohelet, traditionally believed to be King Solomon, Life is, to use a euphemism, B.S. Life is futile and meaningless. To use his expression, it’s chasing after wind. The only thing you can count on is dying, and that death will wipe out everything you did, assuming you did anything at all in the first place, which by the way was totally worthless anyway. Although Kohelet is sung to Megillah cantillation, I have always believed it really belongs in 12-bar Blues on an old acoustic guitar with some serious blues riffs thrown in. Robert Johnson should sing Kohelet, not a cantor. It’s the blues before there was the Blues.
Yet like the blues, there is some comfort about singing about the hopeless, futile situation we find ourselves in. I was trying to write about this while doing the laundry early this morning. I did not make much progress, two little paragraphs was all I got. I understand the frustration Solomon wrote, but I could not put it into words. Tradition has it he wrote the three books of wisdom attributed to him at different times of his life. Song of Songs was written in his youth, and Proverbs in his old age, with Kohelet in his middle years. Often I’ve believed that was inaccurate. Kohelet and Song of Songs are both from his youth: the hopeless romantic and the angst that young people seamlessly switch between. I’m hitting those middle years, and I get what Kohelet is talking about – yep this is a middle age thing – but how to put it into words.
While sitting looking out the window on my apartment’s laundry room, a repairman walked in. He greeted me quite friendly and commented to me while looking out the window that this has got to be the best view of any laundry room he deals with. Since my apartment building was built 56 years ago, our laundry room is on the 21st floor with windows looking out onto a river of trees leading to a beautiful view of the park and zoo below. I’ll admit, while writing I was very distracted by those same trees, noting their color changes just beginning. Yet, out from behind a washing machine, this woman interrupting our conversation, jumps up and fires out a litany of complaints about this recently remodeled, rather luxury laundry room. I don’t think there was anything she liked.
On my way down the elevator I realized what I needed to write, why Sukkot is associated with Kohelet. The building did quite the job at re-designing the laundry room a few months back, adding many amenities for those who wait for their laundry including a big screen TV and wi-fi. For the professional like me this is wonderful as I can get several things done at the same time such as e-mail and writing the Drash. They doubled the number of washing machines and added several dryers. They changed the hours from 8:00AM-8:00PM daily to 24 hours. At the heart of all of this is environmentally friendly, silent, energy efficient washing machines. It was these front loaders which this lady went off on the most, seemingly hating them with her dying breath, and extolling the virtues of the old, noisy top loading machines.
I realized something after this. Kohelet wrote about it too:
5. As you do not know what is the way of the wind, nor how the bones grow in the womb of her who is with child; even so you do not know the works of God who makes all. 6. In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withhold your hand; for you do not know which shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both alike shall be good. [11:5-6]
There are things in life we can change and there are things we cannot, we cannot even know what will change. Yet there are many things that we cannot change that we hold on to too tight, it hurts for them to change. Most of the very biggest we have no say in, such as the day of death. Death for Kohelet is the big equalizer. It does not matter how rich, happy, wise, poor, miserable, or foolish you are. You come into the world the same, and go out of the world the same. Someone else will get your stuff; you can’t take it with you. It’s a change that we really have no control of. Laundry machines may not be the most appropriate analogy, but we as tenants really didn’t have much control of what kind of laundry machine goes in. Yet those who think of a laundry machine as one of these old noisy things will have hard time dealing with these new energy efficient models and actually get angry about removing such things from their reality. Change happened and there are two ways to deal with it. One is to feel pain, to complain and get angry. The other is to let go, change your world view, find what’s good about it, and move on. Worrying about what kind of laundry machine you’re using really is chasing after wind.
Walking before dawn to get coffee I noted the twenty degree drop in temperature this morning from yesterday. The weather of fall is fast approaching. With fall, trees, birds and animals will go into their winter modes, either going to sleep until the spring or flying away to better climates. In Avodah Zarah 8a we are told Adam became very afraid his first autumn. As the world grew dark and the world around him began its first seasonal sleep he thought God was destroying the world. As the world gets darker and darker with earlier sunsets and later sunrises, in a sense that is true, a reminder of our own mortality, particularly in the shadow of Netaneh Tokef and that decree of who shall live and who shall die.
Yet Kohelet in his blues let us know not to worry too much about that. Everything’s chasing after wind. Doing bad is only going to make your meaningless existence worse, with unpredictable results. Gaining wisdom, following God, and enjoying yourself on the other hand may not help you after death. Yet, you have lived well in this life, even though there is always more you could have done. Kohelet, in his own version of “Down and Out Blues” brings us to a place where we are free to dream of all possibilities since everything ultimately has the same value after death – none at all.
I headed to Erev Sukkot services on an elevated train, in the orange light of late afternoon turning treetops yellow and orange. Passing many neighborhoods, each different from the previous one, I listened to blues tunes and they seemed to fit. Often these are songs of total misery, pain and want, yet even standing on a crowded rush-hour train, you can’t help but feel good and tap your feet. Somehow in its depressing message, Kohelet is uplifting in its message this time of year. While not anywhere as simple or Pollyanna as the more pop music tune of Bobby McFerrin “Don’t worry be happy,” Kohelet’s message is really the same one with a stipulation:
13. The end of the matter, all has been heard. Be in awe of God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. 14. For God shall bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it is good, or whether it is evil. [12:13-14]
At the beginning of the year, we are to live a good year, and not be afraid to take chances and expand our possibilities. There really is little to fear, since there is only one ultimate outcome. Yet, we must always remember there is God, and while nothing else might have purpose, our adherence to the mitzvot do. I believe that Kohelet was wrong in one respect however, He wrote “there is nothing new under the sun” [1:9] Yet, As did R. Isaac in the name of R. Johanan [Ta’anit 5b], I believe differently, and there is something beyond death even in this world. We create memories, both good and bad which reflect and ripple out to others. The mitzvot do not just bring us closer to God, but also bring us closer to other humans to reflect in their joy. This is not only in the time we are in this world, but in the time we are not. Sukkot is a time to relate; to understand our relationship to everything outside of us. In the most open of structures we see the world around us in a way our brick walls and small windows never allow. The joy we spread on these days will be new under the sun. The pleasure we give others will be here forever, and even reflect in the world to come. We can take that with us.
May your Sukkot be a joyous one.