Kohelet: Radical Joy
This brief Dvar Torah from Rabbi Sacks explores the deepest question of all – what is the point of life? – as asked and answered by Kohelet, whose megillah we read on the festival of Succot.
The meaning of Kohelet, the megillah that we read during Succot, hinges on one word: hevel. It occurs 38 times, more than half of all its occurrences in Tanach. No other book announces its theme more emphatically by using one word five times in a single sentence, the second sentence in the book: “Hevel of hevels“, says Kohelet, “hevel of hevels, all is hevel” (Kohelet 1:2). What does the word mean? It’s been translated as ‘pointless’, ‘meaningless’, ‘futile’, ’empty’, ‘vapour’, ‘smoke’, ‘insubstantial’, ‘absurd’, ‘vanity’, but the primary meaning is ‘breath’.
The Hebrew words for ‘soul’, among them nefesh, ru’ach and neshamah, all have to do with the act of breathing. Hevel specifically means ‘a shallow breath’. What obsesses Kohelet is that all that separates life from death is a shallow breath. He’s obsessed by the fragility and brevity of life as contrasted with the seeming eternity of the universe. The world endures forever, but we are, as we say in unetaneh tokef, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, “like a broken shard, like grass dried up, like a faded flower, a fleeting shadow, a passing cloud, a breath of wind, whirling dust, a dream that slips away, dust we are and to dust we return”.
Kohelet is a sustained meditation on mortality, one of the most profound in all literature. He is traumatised by the unbearable lightness of being. The fact that life is lived toward death, that our days are numbered. That like Moshe, for each of us there will be a Jordan we will not cross, a fulfilment we will not live to see. We don’t and can’t know how long we will live, but life will always seem too short. We now sense the drama of Succot seen through the eyes of Kohelet. For 10 days, beginning on Rosh Hashanah and reaching a climax on Yom Kippur, we’ve prayed zachreinu l’chaim, “Remember us for life, King who desires life, and write us in the book of life for Your sake, God of life.”
Now, having survived the trial, comes the deepest question of all. What actually is life? What is this gift that we’ve been granted? What gives life meaning, purpose, substance? What will redeem us from the shadow of death? Kohelet’s answer is, in a word, joy, simcha. What redeems life and etches it with the charisma of grace is joy in your work: “sweet is the sleep of the labouring man” (Kohelet 5:11); joy in your marriage: “see life with the woman you love” (Kohelet 9:9); and joy in the simple pleasures of life: “take joy in each day”. Simcha, joy, doesn’t involve, as does happiness, a judgement about life as a whole. Joy lives in the moment. It asks no questions about tomorrow; it celebrates the power of now.
The Talmud says that Hillel lived by the principle, “baruch Hashem yom yom“, “blessed be God day by day” (Beitza 16a). That’s what joy does, it blesses God day by day. It celebrates the mere fact of being here, now, existing, when we might not have done. Inhaling to the full this day, this hour, this eternity in a moment, that was not before and will not be again. Joy embraces the contingency of life. It knows that yesterday is gone and tomorrow is unknown. It doesn’t ask what was or will be. It makes no calculations. It’s a state of radical thankfulness for the gift of being. Even in an age too fraught for happiness, there can still be joy.
Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in one of his letters, “The reality of any joy in the world is indescribable, only in joy does creation happen (happiness, on the contrary, is only a promising and interpretable pattern of things already existing); joy, however, is a marvellous increasing of what already exists, a pure addition out of nothingness” (Letter to Ilse Erdmann, 31 January 1914). What saved Kohelet was his belated realisation that joy redeems life from the shadow of death. Joy doesn’t ask how long it will last, it discovers epiphany in the here and now. Yes, life is sometimes unfair and the world unjust, but the very brevity of life makes each moment precious.