Much of this is based on Rabbi Eiseman’s Shelter Amongst the Shadows, on Kohelet and Sukkot.
I want to talk about ספר קהלת, which we read today, שבת חול המועד סוכות. It is a unique book in תנ״ך, for an interesting reason. When we think about philosophy, about understanding the world, there are two fundamental questions: what and why. “What” is the question of what is real (ontology) and how do we know that (epistemology). There’s none of that in תנ״ך; some of what we call Kabbalah is מעשה בראשות, which touches on that subject. “Why” is the question of the purpose of creation and our place in the universe, and thus how we are supposed to act. תנ״ך deals with this all the time, but never in a “philosophic” way. There’s no questioning. We assume the answer right from the start. For example, the three books called ספרי אמת have similar sentiments:
ראשית חכמה יראת ה׳ שכל טוב לכל עשיהם; תהלתו עמדת לעד׃
תחלת חכמה יראת ה׳; ודעת קדשים בינה׃
ויאמר לאדם הן יראת ה׳ היא חכמה; וסור מרע בינה׃
Kohelet is the only one that starts with the question. It ends up in the “right place” (it is, after all, a book of תנ״ך), but only at the end:
סוף דבר הכל נשמע את האלקים ירא ואת מצותיו שמור׃
Rabbi Shulman, based on Rav Medan, gave a year-long course on קהלת , breaking it down into a 4-way argument between the נהנה (the aesthete, who values pleasure), the עמל (the one who values work and effort), the ירא (the one who fears G-d) and the חכם (the one who values wisdom). Each destroys the other’s arguments, always with the point that גם זה הבל. Death makes everything pointless. Nothing lasts.
The introductory paragraph sets out the problem:
ב הבל הבלים אמר קהלת הבל הבלים הכל הבל׃ ג מה יתרון לאדם; בכל עמלו שיעמל תחת השמש׃ ד דור הלך ודור בא והארץ לעולם עמדת׃
In Rabbi Eiseman’s loose translation:
Be aware of life’s utter futility [we base our translation on Ramban [who] points out that הֲבֵל is a verb in the צווי…Declare הֲבָלִים to be הָבֶל]…hevel is all-pervasive. What, after all, can man hope to gain by all his labors when these are directed to life beneath the sun?
In Koheles, the villian is the sun…The sun in all its crass physical vitality, in the endless circularity of its motion…rules over a world that comes as close to self-sufficiency as anything could possibly come…Activities under its aegis (תחת השמש) are bereft of any connection to the Divine. They are hevel is all its pointless emptiness.
This metaphor of “under the sun” as the physical world reminds me of Aristotle’s view of the “sublunar” world, the world we live in, under the perfect spheres that control (in an astrological sense) it.
Aristotle has proved that the difference of forms becomes evident by the difference of actions. Since, therefore, the motion of the elements is rectilinear, and that of the spheres circular, we infer that the substances are different. This inference is supported by Natural Science.…
For as regards the things in the sublunary world, his explanations are in accordance with facts, and the relation between cause and effect is clearly shown.…
I think that it was the object of Aristotle in attributing in his Metaphysics one Intelligence to every sphere, to assume the existence of something capable of determining the peculiar course of each sphere.
I like quoting that because it is so completely wrong; the rationalist view that Rambam espouses (“the relation between cause and effect is clearly shown”) is not an effective way to understand even the physical world. But as metaphor it is fine.
Each voice becomes fainter and fainter as the ירא is left the only one talking. The only thing that gives meaning to life in the face of death is the idea that there is a higher purpose (this is not the same as עולם הבא; that argument does not appear directly).
ח הבל הבלים אמר הקוהלת הכל הבל׃ ט ויתר שהיה קהלת חכם; עוד למד דעת את העם ואזן וחקר תקן משלים הרבה׃ י בקש קהלת למצא דברי חפץ; וכתוב ישר דברי אמת׃ יא דברי חכמים כדרבנות וכמשמרות נטועים בעלי אספות; נתנו מרעה אחד׃ יב ויתר מהמה בני הזהר; עשות ספרים הרבה אין קץ ולהג הרבה יגעת בשר׃ יג סוף דבר הכל נשמע; את האלקים ירא ואת מצותיו שמור כי זה כל האדם׃ יד כי את כל מעשה האלקים יבא במשפט על כל נעלם; אם טוב ואם רע׃
Rabbi Eiseman’s loose translation:
Koheles would much rather have told you what you want to hear, but for honest writing there is nothing but the truth. The words of the wise are like goads; they embed themselves like nails. The wise are masters of eclectic knowledge drawn from diverse sources, which, in the end, all emanate from the One Shepherd. But, other than these, there is little point in writing endless books requiring constant study with no positive result other than draining one’s strength. For wisdom’s final word, the sum of all possible truth is this: Fear G-d and live by His commandments. Nothing else really matters.
All of the other things—pleasure in the physical, effort, and wisdom (in all areas of human endeavor)—have there place but only in the context of the the ultimate purpose, יראת ה׳. Note that this is not a logical, philosophical, answer to the problem of ethics, but an emotional one. Having יראת ה׳ allows us to not despair, to go on with life despite the inevitability of death.
And this is the connection to סוכות:
We assume that Succos celebrates the ordinary life: eating, sleeping and just spending time, provided that it takes place away from the searing physicality of the sun, within the sacred shadow of the Succah. This, precisely, appears also to be the message of Koheles. It is a lyric affirmation of this-worldly life as long as it is not weighted by the cloying futility that drains all activity undertaken תחת השמש of its lilt and its music.