There is something magical about a sukkah. It holds us inside its flimsy walls, decorated with lights and colors. Sitting inside, barely separated from the night, we are forced to make our own warmth and joy through steaming food, and the laughter of friends and family. The shelter is temporary, but through joy, we make it something more.
During the holiday of Sukkot, we read the book of Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes. This book, included in the writings in the Tanach, is part of the Wisdom literature of the ancient Near East — writings that reflect the creators' life experience and use images of the natural world to describe it.
Sukkot is the holiday of joy, but Kohelet opens with a challenge to that. The famous line: "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity" sets a tone of hopelessness, rather than celebration. Why then do we read this book during Sukkot, the holiday where we are commanded in Deuteronomy 16 to "have nothing but joy"?
One reason is that Kohelet declares, over and over, that in the face of despair, all a person can do is enjoy. "Only this, I have found, is the real good: that one should eat and drink and get pleasure with all the gains he makes under the sun … ."
This is certainly the spirit of Sukkot — to feast with friends in the sukkah, celebrating with food and wine, and relaxing after the spiritual work of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Yet characteristically, Kohelet also negates his suggestions to make merry: "Wise men are drawn to a house of mourning, and fools to a house of merrymaking." So, what are we supposed to think now?
The book is full of such paradoxes. Kohelet suggests merrymaking, and then pronounces merrymaking to be vanity. The only conclusion we can take from his words is that nothing is certain — our lives are fleeting, everything is constantly in flux, and only God knows what's in store for us.
This, of course, is the real answer to why we read this book over Sukkot. The sukkah — the structure that we are commanded to dwell in during the holiday — symbolizes the impermanence that Kohelet describes. The structure is temporary, flimsy, and open to the sky and all the elements of nature.
We weave a womb of comfort around ourselves inside the sukkah with our decorations, food and laughter, but the placement of the sukkah reminds us of how fragile these things are. We are vulnerable to wind and rain and cold. And we feel the change of the season more strongly — we witness the falling of the leaves and the fading of summer flowers.
Building and dwelling in the sukkah forces us to embody the impermanence that we prefer to ignore the rest of the year. Every year we build the sukkah, only to take it down again and bring it out the next year. The only thing that endures is our happiness.
Kohelet reminds us that we are joyful during Sukkot, not only because the Torah commands it, but because the recognition of impermanence itself leads to joy. A fool is one who is easily frustrated because he or she expects things to go a certain way, and is disappointed when they do not. The wise person lets go of any such expectations, knowing that the only real thing is change.
When we accept the wisdom of Sukkot, only then are we able to celebrate and find bliss in what we have, knowing that it is fragile and may go away.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College.