Each of the Jewish holidays is characterized by a special biblical book (megillah). On Passover, we read Song Of Songs. On Shavuot, we read Ruth. On Sukkot, we read Ecclesiastes, known in Hebrew as "Kohelet," the name by which Solomon calls himself in the book.
Ecclesiastes begins, "Vanity of vanity, says Kohelet, vanity of vanities; all is vanity." It then catalogs the many life philosophies and lifestyles its author, the King of Jerusalem, experimented with and ultimately concluded were vain and empty. For this reason, people often view Kohelet as pessimistic and downbeat.
Nothing is further from the truth. And that is illustrated by the fact that the sages instructed us to read it on Sukkot, the festival of our greatest simcha, joy. Far from being a depressing book, Kohelet is there to add to the simcha. It's infused with a spirit of joy and optimism, and gives Sukkot a special flavor.
In order to penetrate and breakthrough to the beautiful, exhilarating message beneath the surface of Kohelet's often complex imagery and language, we must analyze three key words -- the Hebrew equivalents of "human," "vanity" and "sun" - which are repeated throughout the entire work. Understanding these words in depth will provide us with the skeleton key to reveal the true message of this often misunderstood book.1
The first word is adam, "man," i.e. human being. In the Torah we are told that Adam was given his name because he was made from the adama, the "earth." However, that doesn't seem to explain the human being very well, because animals and myriads of other things were created from the adama. For instance, the verse says: "Let the earth give forth living things." If God wanted to give human beings a name that points to their uniqueness, one could argue that adam isn't a very good name.
Adam is nothing as he is; he is everything in what he can become.
However, the Maharal explains that adama, "earth," has two very seemingly different characteristics that in reality harmonize with one another. One on hand, there is little value in a simple clod of earth. On the other hand, all life ultimately comes from the earth. We stand on the earth; it gives us our food and minerals. It carries within it the entire and total potential of human life.
Adama, then, is that material which in and of itself is valueless but which nevertheless carries within itself a vast potential. Adam is called his name because he has the potential of adama. He is nothing as he is; he is everything in what he can become.
"Adam l'omal yulad -- The human was created for labor." If a person is going to make anything of himself, he is going to have to work very hard. If he is going to become something he has to take all those wonderful gifts that God gave him and to forge from them a personality, a being, who is Godly and good.
"Adam," then, conveys the meaning of a being whose potential is limitless, but who needs a great deal of work in order to attain it.
The most common word in Kohelet is hevel, which is often translated "vanity."
"Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet, vanity of vanities; all is vanity."
However, "vanity" isn't a particularly good translation. Hevel literally means "breath." When you let out a breath of air in the cold of winter you see its mist briefly, and then, just as quickly, see it dissipate. That's hevel: it's there one minute, seemingly possessing substance, and then gone the next.
Hevel is Kohelet's way of describing material existence. Material existence is "Like a shadow that passes… a mist that dissipates… a dream that vanishes…." A hevel existence is a vain, empty experience -- no matter how well off one is in a material sense.
The third term that's key to understanding Kohelet is the Hebrew word shemesh, "sun." Shemesh throughout the Written and Oral Torah is used as a metaphor for physical life. The sun controls our life. It gives light and heat. It makes things grow. It makes life possible. "Sun" therefore is a metaphor for physical existence.
To summarize the three key terms: Adam, from soil, represents something that is worthless as it is but limitless in what it can become. Hevel, like hot air, represents material existence, something that in the final analysis is insubstantial. Shemesh, "sun," represents bounded, physical life.
Let's now plug these understandings into the key verses.
The second verse of Ecclesiastes reads: "Hevel havalim, says Kohelet, hevel havalim, everything is hevel."2 The verse can be understood as a rhetorical question: Is that all there is -- hevel? The purpose of Kohelet is to ponder this question: What on earth are we doing here? What is our purpose here? Is there nothing more than a hevel existence? This is Kohelet's question.
The next verse answers the question. "What benefit does a human being (adam) have from all his labor he labors under the sun?" At first glance, all this teaches is that if a person labors and invests energies he gains nothing, he has no benefit. However, by adding the qualifying term, "under the sun," the verse opens itself to an implication and supplies the answer to the opening question.
What benefit does a person have, what benefit can he expect, if he invests that labor for which he was created in an activity "beneath the sun," in an existence controlled and defined by the sun, by physical existence?
Labor beneath the sun has no ultimate benefit; labor above the sun has infinite potential for growth.
However, while labor beneath the sun has no ultimate benefit, labor above the sun does. Labor above the sun has infinite potential and opportunity for growth. The human being can become Godly.
A hevel existence, an existence entirely "beneath the sun," is an empty, vain existence. If, on the other hand, one can discover the spiritual dimension and inject some sanctity into his otherwise hevel life -- if he can grow spiritually and become Godly -- then his existence is anything but hevel.
The Sukkot Connection
Kohelet is the perfect biblical book for Sukkot.
During the year we sit in a house with a roof over our heads. Symbolically, the roof separates us from heaven. On Sukkot, we sit in a temporary structure that has no true ceiling to divide us from the Divine. In the sukkah we eat, drink and sleep, and basically live an ordinary physical life. However, in the sukkah the Shechinah, the Divine presence, is shining through the schach (the thin, thatch-like roof), enveloping our entire being in holiness -- adding meaning and a dynamic to ordinary life. Our entire physical existence becomes a mitzvah, a holy act.
God has given us a wonderful world to live in. It's full of beauty and song. Yet there's a catch. We are challenged. We have to allow the Divine to shine into our lives. If so, it is a life of substance, not hevel. It's a life of genuine optimism and holiness.
If, on the other hand, we live separated from the spiritual dimension -- under a closed roof with a barrier above, living entirely "under the sun" -- even if that roof is the ceiling of the most ornate mansion -- our life will be a life of futility, vanity, hevel.
We are creatures rooted in the earth but capable of forging ourselves into something reaching into the heavens. To the extent one nurtures the inner spark and makes it the main focus of his labor here is the extent one's life will have substance, meaning, hope and happiness.
A little clod of earth can create and embody Godliness. That is an exhilarating challenge. And that is the message of Kohelet.
1. This is the approach of Rabbi Moshe Eisenmann, heard from a recorded lecture.
2. The sages point out that there are seven instances of hevel in this verse, because the word havalim, the plural form of hevel, implies two. Hence we have three instances of hevel in the singular, plus two instances of the word in the plural, which altogether add up to seven. In other words, there are instances of hevel in the second verse. The sages teach this refers to the seven days of the week, implying that every day of the week -- even Shabbat! -- can be part of a hevel existence, of a limited, non-growing existence.
This article is dedicated to the loving memory of my father, R' Chaim Benyamin ben Yaakov Reuven, o"h.