On a number of the Festivals, there is a custom to read one of the five Megillot. There is always a connection between the festival and the Megilla that is read during it. On Sukkot we read Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). Kohelet was written by King Solomon. It focuses on how he experienced every possible pleasure of the physical world (within the context of Jewish law). Yet he discovered that it was all meaningless, in his words, hevel havalim, which literally means the ultimate of emptiness.
The commentaries ask that the message of Kohelet seems to have little connection with Sukkot, indeed it seems to contradict the very essence of the Festival: Sukkot is described as ‘zman simchaseinu’ – A time of joy. This demonstrates that it is a time of great joy, even more so than the other festivals. Kohelet, in contrast, seems to be anything but joyous, in its continuous stressing of the meaningless of the physical world. What is the connection between the two?
In order to answer this question it is necessary to first deepen our understanding of the fact that Sukkot is considered a time of such great joy. Rav Yaakov Neiman of blessed memory, notes that one of the primary features of Sukkot is the fact that we are commanded to leave our permanent abode and live in a temporary dwelling. He asks that this seems anything but conducive to feeling joy; leaving one’s secure, comfortable home for a flimsy, sparse sukkah, would seem to bring about a decline in one’s level of happiness.
He answers that, in truth, a person can only reach true happiness when he develops recognition that the pleasures of the physical world are illusory and do not provide him with a genuine sense of happiness and fulfillment. Therefore, leaving one’s home for a sukkah actually enables him to realize that the physical comforts of the physical world cannot offer him true happiness.
It still needs to be explained why one can never attain true happiness through this-worldly pleasures. A fundamental tenet of Judaism is that a human being is comprised of a combination of the body and soul. Both have an inherent drive for satisfaction; the body attains this through attaining physical desires which can only be enjoyed in the physical world, whereas the soul has ‘spiritual’ aspirations that focus on connecting to HaShem, whose main reward is Olam Haba (the world to come).
It is possible for the soul to elevate the body to the point where the body becomes subservient to the soul and facilitates its connection to HaShem. For example, if one says a blessing when he eats food he elevates this mundane physical act into a spiritual one. However, if a person makes his primary goal the attainment of this-worldly pleasures, then the soul will not receive any sense of satisfaction, since its aspirations are being ignored. It follows that an overly strong attachment to the physical world will prevent a person from attaining a true sense of joy.
Accordingly, we can now understand the connection between the joy of Sukkot and the seemingly pessimistic message of Kohelet. King Solomon is not saying that life is inherently meaningless, rather he is focusing on a life aimed at attaining this-worldly pleasures.
We see this from the Talmud’s discussion of a contradiction within the book of Kohelet. In the second chapter of Kohelet, King Solomon writes: Happiness, what does it do?” suggesting the futility of joy. However, in the eighth chapter, he tells us, “I praised joy.” The Talmud answers that the futile type of joy is “happiness that is not of a Mitzvo.” Whereas, the praiseworthy joy is, “happiness that is of a Mitzvo.” King Solomon is telling us that forms of joy that are rooted in the physical world are ultimately meaningless. However, joy that is connected to spirituality is praiseworthy.
We have seen that the lessons of Sukkot and Kohelet go hand in hand. Both teach us that the only way to attain true happiness is by recognizing that worldly pleasures will never ultimately satisfy the soul’s yearning to connect to HaShem. May we apply these lessons to our lives and merit to tap into the happiness of Sukkot.