The Lessons of Kohelet
A shiur to launch the Koren Sacks Succot Machzor
On 26th September 2016, Rabbi Sacks delivered a shiur to officially launch the Koren Sacks Succot Mahzor (The Gross Family Edition).
The video was recorded in Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue in London and the event was jointly sponsored by the United Synagogue and Koren Publishers Jerusalem. The sources used have been incorporated into the video.
Friends, Succot. I want to share with you a journey. A long journey, actually, but not a difficult one but a really, really revelatory one, as to the nature of Succot. And I hope you’ll be able to – I’m going to go at speed, you see, we’ve got a lot of mikorot [sources] – but I hope we’ll see something really quite new. And let me share, therefore, with you, the following preparatory questions.
Number one, what actually is Succot? Right? There is only one point in the whole of the Torah – you see it there in source one [Vayikra 23:42-43] – which actually tells you what Succot is all about, right? Ba-succot tayshvu – Can you see it? – shivat yamim… Live in a succah for seven days, kol–ha’ezrach beYisrael yaishvu basuccot, everyone born in Israel must sit in a succah, lema’an yaydu dorotaychem, so that your generations shall know, ki basuccot hoshavti et Bnei Yisrael, that I made the Israelites live in succot, b’hotzey’ee ottam may-eretz Mitzrayim, Ani Hashem Elokaychem, when I took them out of the land of Egypt, I am the Lord your God.
Now, tell me, what is a succah? What does it symbolise? And on this, we know, a famous Rabbinic disagreement [machloket]. You’ll find it in two versions, in sources two and three. I’ll just read you the more famous one from the Babylonian Talmud. [Succah 11b:64] Ki b’succot hoshavti et Bnei Yisrael annenay kavod hayu divrei Rabbi Eliezer. The succot represent the Clouds of Glory that protected the Israelites for forty years as they wandered through the wilderness. Divrei Rabbi Eliezer – That is the view of Rabbi Eliezer.
Rabbi Akiva amar, Rabbi Akiva says, succot mamash assu lahem. Actually, a succah is a succah is a succah. [Succah 11b:65] It’s just, literally, a succah. That’s what the Israelites lived in, and that’s what it symbolises. If you look at source three, you’ll find the same disagreement but mochleffet hashitta, it’s Rabbi Eliezer who says succot mamash and Rabbi Akiva who says they were Clouds of Glory.
Now, let me ask you a simple question. According to Rabbi Akiva, what was the miracle of Succot? They lived in a shed, okay? That’s what Bedouin do today. We celebrate a miracle on Pesach – God took us out of Egypt from slavery to freedom. We celebrate a miracle on Shavuos – or the only time in history, God revealed Himself to an entire people. What is the miracle of a garden shed (unless it’s me putting it up)? (congregation laughs)
So according to Rabbi Akiva, who said, “Succot is succot mamash,” just a succah, what are we celebrating? That is a serious question. According to Rabbi Eliezer, who says that a succah represents the Clouds of Glory – if the succah really did represent the Clouds of Glory, what should it have said in the verse? Ki be’annan – in a Cloud, I led the Israelites through Egypt. That’s what it says all the way through. Can you see source four? [Vayikra 16:2) Vayomer Hashem el-Moshe, daber el-Aharon achicha va’al-yavo… et cetera, et cetera… ki be’annan eira-eh al-hakaporet, I will appear in a Cloud above the mercy seat. Or, in source five [Shemot 40:34] Vayechas he’annan et-Ohel Mo’ed, The Cloud covered the Tent of Meeting of the glory of God.
When the Torah wants to refer to a cloud, it refers to a cloud. Why call a cloud a “succah”? Nowhere in the whole of Torah, in the whole of Tanach, is a cloud called a succah. So we have a question, according to Rabbi Akiva, we have a question according to Rabbi Eliezer, okay? Number one.
Number two: Tell me something. Where in the Torah does it say the Israelites lived in succot for 40 years in the wilderness? The answer, nowhere except here. Actually, did they live in succah? What did they live in? They lived in tents.
You remember, the most famous of them all? Source six. [Bamidbar 24:5] There’s Bilaam looking out over the camp. Ma-tovu ohalecha Yaacov mishkenoteicha Yisrael. They lived in tents, they didn’t live in succahs. A tent doesn’t have a roof. You can’t fulfil [the mitzvah of living in] succot by living in a tent, okay?
So, how come, if it’s to remind us of the Israelites of the wilderness, it tells us that they lived in succot and nowhere else does it say, they lived in succot. Nowhere in the whole of Tanach, okay? Question number two.
Question number three: Tell me what is the other name for Succot? What do we call it? Zeman Simchateinu. The Festival of our Joy. And the reason we call Festival of our Joy is that – in [sources] seven and eight, you’ll see I put them in boldface and underlined, right? – It says it three times…
How many times is simcha mentioned in the Torah in connection with Pesach? Anyone know? Zero. How many times is simcha mentioned in connection with Shavuos? One. How many times is it mentioned in connection with Succot? Three times. Can you see?
Source seven [Vayikra 23:40] …usemachtem lifnai Hashem Elokaichem That’s in parshas Emor. And in Devarim it says [Devarim 16:14]: Vesamachta bechaggecha… and vehayita achsame’ach. That is all about Succot. Succot is called Zeman Simchateinu because simcha is mentioned three times in relation to Succos, once in relation to Shavuos, no times in relation to Pesach.
Tell me, if you were to ask – and you didn’t know any of this – which is the most joyous of the festivals, which would you have chosen? Well, Pesach, you get liberated from slavery to freedom. On that you can rejoice. Allow me to give you full permission to rejoice. I would have chosen Pesach. Or, God comes down from Heaven and speaks to you, personally, on that I would rejoice. God forces you to live forty years in a shed without a proper roof, on that you rejoice? Are you with me? Question three. Why call it Zeman Simchateinu? Okay? Now, that’s three questions.
Question four: If you were to choose a book out of all the Torah to read on Succot, which would you choose? Or maybe, let me put it the other way around, which is the one you wouldn’t choose? Kohelet, right? It’s the most miserable book in the whole of Tanach. Well, how it does it begin? There it is, source nine [Kohelet 1:2] Havel havalim amar Kohelet havel havalim hakol havel. Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless. It’s meaningless, right? Would that cheer you up? Are you with me? Of all the books in the Torah you shouldn’t choose, it’s Kohelet, okay? Now what do we choose? Kohelet. That’s question number four.
Now I am going to ask question number five. And question number five, should turn out to be the key that unlocks a whole series of extraordinary discoveries. Who wrote Kohelet? Shlomo HaMelech, right? Okay, let’s have a look. Can you see source 12? The opening line of Kohelet, right? [Kohelet 1:1] Divei Kohelet ben David, Melech bYerushalayim. Kohelet, the son of David, King in Jerusalem. Who is that? It’s Solomon. Only Solomon fits that description. Only Solomon was the son of David who ruled. Only Solomon was the one who accumulated all that wealth described. “I built houses and gardens and made a fortune in real estate, and all the rest of it. I was wiser than anyone else.” That’s Solomon, right? Does the word Solomon appear in Kohelet? No. Right.
Now, let me ask you, what other books did Solomon write according to tradition? (congregation member speaks) What? Shir Hashirim and? Mishlei. Okay. Does it mention King Solomon in Shir Hashirim and Mishlei?
Have a look in source 10. [Mishlei 1:1] The opening line of Mishlei. Mishlei Shlomo ben-David, Melech Yisrael. Doesn’t leave you in much doubt. In case you forgot it by the time you get through, it repeats it five times in Mishlei. Shir Hashirim? Have a look in source 11. [Shir Hashirim 3:11] Tzeinah ure’enah bnot Tzion baMelech Shlomo ba’attarah she’itra-lo immo b’yom chatunato uvayom simchat libo. Come out, daughters of Jerusalem and look at King Solomon, with a crown which his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding and the day of his rejoicing. In Mishlei, it tells you King Solomon. In Shir Hashirim, it tells you King Solomon. Does the word “Solomon” appear in Kohelet? No.
Now this is peculiar. We all know it’s the words of Solomon. Whether Solomon wrote it or somebody else wrote it and attributed it to him, or somebody else wrote it about him. Whatever it was, whether it was a biography, an autobiography, a ghosted autobiography, doesn’t matter. We know it means Shlomo. Why call it Koheles? A word that appears nowhere else in the whole of Tanach. Are you with me. Why?
Now this can only be one thing. If my way of reading Tanach, in general, makes sense, I’ve argued, for instance, in my book, Not in God’s Name, that very often in Torah and Tanach you will find beneath the surface meaning a concealed counter-narrative. There is a story beneath the story. But we always find a clue somewhere to tell us that there’s more here than meets the eye. And this word, Kohelet, is such a clue.
What clue is it giving? Well, I’ll tell you: A word very similar to Kohelet appears in the Torah, near the end. Anyone know where? There’s a mitzvah, which is almost the same word. The mitzvah is called Hakhel. It’s the same word, kahal, right? It means a community – kehillah. The 612th command is Hakhel. 612 out of 613. Tell me something: There it is, command in source 13. Have you got it? When did Hakhel take place? Succos, right? It says in source 13 [Devarim 31:10] Vaytzav Moshe ottam laymor, And Moses commanded them, saying, Mikkeitz sheva shanim b’moed shnat hashmittah bChag haSuccot. On Succot, at the end of the Shmittah year, the King is to assemble everyone in Jerusalem and teach Torah to them. That is, incidentally, what Koheles does. He is makhil, right at the end he taught people Torah and many of the commentators say, that’s why he was called Koheles, because this is what he taught at Hakhel. But here is a connection between Kohelet and Succot.
Second question, what is Solomon famous for? Apart from having a lot of wives, and a lot of money, and an awful lot of horses. He built the Temple. When did he inaugurate the Temple? (congregation member answers) In other words, the celebrations began a little before Succot. They went on through Succot, and b’yom hashemini – on Shemini Atzeret – he gave people the chance to go back, right?
Have a look, here it is. Source 14 [I Melachim 8:1] Az… What’s that word? yakhel Shlomo. This is Kings I, chapter eight, this is the chapter which tells the story of King Solomon consecrating the Temple. Then Shlomo assembled the Elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the princes, et cetera, et cetera. Laha’alot et-aron… vayika’halu el-haMelech Shlomo kol-ish Yisrael be’yerach ha’eytanim bechag hu hachodesh hashevi’i. On the festival of the seventh month. And the festival, the thing called “chag” in the seventh month is called Succot.
If you have a look – if you know how the Torah signifies a key word, it repeats it. How many times? Well, how many times does the word “good” appear in the first chapter of Bereishit? Well, how many days have we got here? Seven. If you see a seven-fold repetition of a word, you know it’s significant. When you go back home, have a look at I Kings, chapter eight, and you will see it has the root k-h-l – vayakhel, seven times. So we’ve got another connection with Succot, and, indeed, with Jerusalem.
Now, there’s a parsha which has that word, as well, isn’t there? Which parsha is it? Vayakhel, right? There it is, source 15 [Shemot 35:1] Vayakhel Moshe et-kol-addat Bnei Yisrael vayomer…. etc. What is he doing in Vayakhel? Telling them to build a Mishkan. Tell me, when did they start building the Mishkan? Anyone remember when Vayakhel is told? The day after Yom Kippur. And you will see that they gave the gifts for it for two days. Right? So count that. The 11th of Tishrei, two days for the bringing of gifts, 12 and 13. When did they start building? Erev Succot.
So we have three connections between the word kohel, Kohelet, and Succot.
Now this is extraordinary. Which is the earliest connection between a festival and a megillah? Well, which Megillah is referred to in the Mishnah and Talmudic tractate called Megillah? Purim, right? Purim, because we wouldn’t have a Purim without Megillat Esther. So, the earliest is probably Esther, and Purim.
Undoubtedly there is an ancient connection between Eichah and Tisha B’Av. The Eichah is clearly written for a moment of lamenting. So the connection, historically, between Kohelet and Succot is probably no earlier than the period of the Gaonim, seventh, eighth, ninth centuries. And yet, already when Kohelet was written, the author of Kohelet included a code word right at the beginning that points us to three texts, all of which have to do with Succot.
Are you with me so far?
Here is the key to the mystery. What Kohelet is telling us is that Succot is a commentary on Kohelet. And Kohelet is a commentary on Succot. As soon as you understand that, then you are going to see things you never saw before. Okay? We are seeing this extraordinary thing that Chazal recognised, they call it sometimes in halachic context, a gzerah shavah. Nowadays, the posh word is intertextuality. There it is, a beautiful piece of intertextuality in three different ways. Kohelet is referring to Succot. And that is the end of the first part of the journey. This is a three-part journey, okay?
Part two. What is the theme of Kohelet? Well, let me ask you, what is the key word of Kohelet? (congregation member speaks) What? Hevel, right? I mean, you can hardly miss it. In line two, how many times does it appear? You see it in source nine. [Kohelet 1:2] Count them up. How many times? Five times, right? Havel havalim amar Kohelet, havel havalim hakol havel. Five times. It appears 38 times in this tiny little book on its own, right?
So now tell me, what does hevel mean? [Congregation member answers] Vanity. Do we have any advance on vanity? (Another congregation member speaks) What? What? No, no, hevel, with a “hay”. I’ll tell you what the translations translate it as. Meaningless, empty, pointless, vanity, purposeless, futile, right? All of which are wrong. You will see in the green Siddur… (Sorry, I have to tell you a little story here.)
Do any of you remember there was a year, it must be eight years ago, when they put on this huge exhibition in New York that had cows everywhere, wooden cows? Were any of you in New York when they had these wooden statues of cows everywhere? Do you remember this, years and years ago? The day – Elaine and I – the day I was inducted into the House of Lords – we brought along a sandwich lunch before the induction, and where do you go to eat a sandwich in the House of Lords? There was a little garden that belonged to Black Rod, it’s just on the Thames, a little private garden.
So we go in the garden, and have a little sandwich, a mezonos sandwich in the garden of the House of Lords, and lo and behold, what do we see? We see one of these New York cows wearing ermine robes, the robes of a member of the House of Lords. I said to Elaine, I have just heard Hashem whisper to me umatta ha-adam min habeheimah ayin ki hakol havel. The pre-eminence of man over the beast is nothing, because all is vanity, okay? So I was put in my place, you know? You think you’re important, to be in the House of Lords, Hashem reminds you, no, we’re all just mortal, et cetera, et cetera.
So, because that line appears very early on in our morning prayers, I had to translate it for the green Siddur. And I had to give it the correct translation. And here is the correct translation. In Hebrew, and not only in Hebrew, in Ancient Greek, and I’m sure in whatever language Hindus speak. Actually, what language do Hindus speak? I don’t know… whatever they speak. Anyway, you will find that the words for soul in Judaism all have to do with breathing. Nefesh, ru’ach, neshamah, vayinafash..., to breathe deeply. Ruach is a wind or a gust of air, n’shiman, linshom, to inhale… So all the words for soul in Hebrew, and Greek, likewise, and so on, they all have to with breathing, and in Hinduism and Zen Buddhism and so on, breathing is a very significant religious act. Hevel means “a shallow breath”. Or as I translated it in the Siddur back in 2005, “a fleeting breath”.
And what Kohelet is saying is this: I may think that I’m the greatest king in the world, the richest man in the world, I built the Temple. I’ve accumulated all this fame, this wisdom. In the end, we’re all going to die. So what’s it all mean? Hakol havel means, the whole of life is a mere breath. You can have everything. Lose breath, you’re dead. That’s finished. That’s the end. Kohelet is the most sustained exploration of mortality in all of the literature. You want to read another one? It’s good, it’s not as good as Kohelet, but it’s very good, read Tolstoy’s Confessions. Tolstoy was induced into the same existential despair as Kohelet. And read those confessions and you’ll see.
You remember that moment, that incredible moving moment, at the end of King Lear? When he suddenly discovered that Cordelia, whom he thought was the one who didn’t like him, is the only one who really cared for him? By the time he discovers it, she’s dead. And he’s holding her body, and he’s saying, Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, “have breath and thou no breath at all?” That is what Kohelet is saying. Everything we build up, our grandiose structures, are nothing because all we are is a mere fleeting breath. And we could die at any moment, and none of us will live forever.
It is the most searching exploration of mortality known to me. Because we can accumulate huge wealth, but if we die, and we hand it on to our kids, who knows what they’ll do with it. Is it good to give your kids wealth, or not good? Who knows? If you have power and you die, who’s going to take your place? Is he going to, or is she going to, undo everything you’ve fought for? You may have devoted your life to writing books. After I die, will anyone read them? Nothing has worth when we reckon the fact that we’re not going to be here to see it.
Now, I want to know what did Kohelet do in this personal, existential crisis. And here I have to introduce a couple of names to you. One or other may be familiar to you. Sigmund Freud had a brilliant disciple, an illui, I mean, I think, in some ways, as bright as Sigmund Freud himself. He was far and away Freud’s most brilliant disciple. He was called Otto Rank. Does the name mean anything to you? His original name was, you guessed it: Rosenberg. But he changed it to Rank. Otto Rank was obsessed with this concept that much of human life is driven by anxiety of the fact that we’re going to die.
There’s another Jewish guy whose name is significant here, and his name was Ernest Becker. Ernest Becker wrote a book, published in 1973, called, The Denial of Death, which introduced Otto Rank’s ideas to the American public. The book was published in 1973, he won the Pulitzer Prize for it in 1974, and by the time he was awarded the prize, he was already dead. And he wrote this book, The Denial of Death. And what they both concluded is that fear of death leads people to do things that make them feel, I will live forever. One of those things is to accumulate great wealth and possessions. Another is to achieve great power. Another is to be very wise and write lots of books. Artistic creativity. All of this is a desire to leave something that will live on after you. The only trouble is, you won’t be there to see it. And that is the theme of the opening to chapters of Kohelet, right? You’ll see them. Can you see it, source 16? But you’ll have to turn over the page, right?
That’s what he says. [Kohelet 2:5-8] Assiti li ganot ufardaissim v’nattati vahem etz kol-peri, I made for myself gardens and orchards. Assiti li braychot mayim… I made for myself pools of water, fountains. Kamini avadim ushfachot… I acquired many servants, Kanassti li gam kessef v’zahav, I accumulated wealth. All of these things are classic syndromes that Otto Rank and Ernest Becker write about. They’re all attempts to defeat death, and all of them fail. So, after all of this, he comes back, havel havalim hakol havel.
Now let me ask you a simple question. If Kohelet is all about death… who was the first human being to die? Who was the first human being to die? (Congregation members answer “Adam”) No. His number two son, in English, Abel, murdered by Cain. Right? What is the Hebrew for Abel? Hevel! That is the word, right? And who is he killed by? Cain. And what does Cain come from? Have a look, source 18, right? It’s there in front of you. Source 18 [Bereishit 4:1] Vaha’adam yadda et Chava ishto, Adam knew Eve, his wife (that is “knowing” as they say, in the biblical sense) vatahar, and she became pregnant, vatayled et-Kayin, and she gave birth to Cain, vatomer, kanitti ish et-Hashem. I have acquired a child together with God. “Kanitti” I have acquired. That’s why she called him Cain.
What did Solomon just say, above there? The source is ‘zayin’ [seven]. Kanitti, right? The word Kanitti only appears six times in the whole of Tanach. Three of them in the Book of Ruth, okay? Kanitti. And now you understand the drama of Cain and Abel is this drama. You know, people say, everyone knows Cain and Abel is a symbolic story. They were real, but they represented something conceptual. People say it’s the old conflict between the farmer and the herdsman. But, in fact, Cain and Abel are a metaphysical drama on death, life, the fragility of life, and the attempt to defeat death by acquisitions.
And that is the drama that Solomon goes through. He attempts to defeat death by Kanitti, by acquiring things, and realises it’s all in vain because those things will live on after me, but I won’t.
Right. Now, what is the Halachic definition – I’m sorry, what is the solution King Solomon comes up with in Kohelet? He eventually finds an answer. Does anyone know what it is? (Congregation member speaks) Pardon? (congregation member speaks) No, I mean before the last verse. He gets there quite early on. Okay, I’m going to give you a clue. Tell me, the word simcha, right? Joy? The root samach in some form or another. How many times does the word simcha appear in the book of Bereishit? Have a guess. One. How many times in the book of Shemot, have a guess. One. How many times in the book of Vayikra? One. How many times in the book of Bamidbar? One. How many times in the book of Devarim? 12, quite a lot, okay? We had some of them last week in Ki Tavo right? Vesamachta b’chol... Sorry, how many does that make up, I’ve lost count here. 16. How many times do you think the word simcha appears in Kohelet? 17. The book we think is the most miserable of the lot has more simcha in it that all five books of the Torah together. And that is the answer.
And I have to tell you something. What is the Hebrew for happiness? Come on, it’s the first word of the book of the Psalms. “Ashrei.” Ashrei, right? Ashrei ha’am vakacha lo, ashrei yoshvei vaytecha. Ashrei. Judaism is interested in happiness. It loves it. But what Judaism really cares about is simcha. What’s the difference between happiness and joy? We have a wonderful philosopher in our midst. And I would say happiness is something philosophers aspire to, at least if they’re Aristotle. Eudaimonia, okay? Happiness involves a life taken as a whole. Someone said, call no man happy until he’s dead. In other words, it didn’t mean you suddenly cheer up when you die. He meant, judge a person by the whole of their life. Is simcha about a lifetime? No. Simcha is about now. Simcha lives in the moment. And that is why you can feel simcha even in the midst of terrible, bad things happening. You ever been to an Israeli wedding when bad things are happening? I have to tell you, we were there during the Gulf War, we were there in 2002 when all the suicide bombings took place. You go to an Israeli wedding, you will see the most magnificent simcha. Because simcha is not stepping back and saying, am I happy with life as whole? Simcha lives in the moment. Simcha is William Blake saying, “to hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.” Or what some rather bestselling Buddhist writer calls “the hour of now”. That is what simcha is about. And so Solomon finally realises, I’m not going to defeat death by accumulating lots of property and wealth and wisdom and writing books, because that’s life as a whole and we never live to see all of this. But I can defeat death by simcha. By rejoicing in the wife that I love, he says. By enjoying today and not worrying about tomorrow. Eat and drink because tomorrow we die. Live in the moment, he says, and have simcha.
And that is how Kohelet finally conquered his obsession with death. He learned to rejoice. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Just thank God for now. And that is what he did.
Now, what is the halachic definition of a succah? Somebody must know this. What is it, the halachic definition of a succah? It is a dirat arai. It’s a temporary dwelling, right? What obsesses King Solomon about the human body? It’s a temporary dwelling. That is what obsesses him. It’s not permanent. A human life is like a succah, it’s not like a palace made of stone, it’s a temporary dwelling. And what allows us to overcome our anxiety and insecurity of the fact that all we have is a temporary dwelling? Simcha.
That is why Succot is Zman Sinchateinu. And that is what Kohelet is telling us about Succot. And that, I think, is the end of part two. Succot is about knowing that life is insecure. You know, we had a whole bunch of people who said you can securitise risk. You remember that one? Sub-prime mortgages, all that stuff? You saw The Big Short? You know what I’m talking about. The truth is you can’t securitise risk. Life is a risk, and it is hazardous. And that robs you of all the joy, because you can never know: am I going to be here tomorrow? Pa pa pa. How do you deal with that? The answer is vesamachta bechaggecha vehayitach sameach. You sit in a rickety old building open to the wind, the rain, the cold, and the storm, and you rejoice. That is how you solve Solomon’s problem, and that is what Succot is all about. That, I think, is the end of the second part of the journey.
Now, I want to ask you a simple question. King Solomon built a Temple. Is that a good thing or not? Well, it must have been a good thing. It was the greatest thing ever, right? But were there some downsides to it? Were there some downsides to building the Temple? Okay, have a look at source 19, right? Here you are. The beginning of the story of the building of the Temple. I Kings, chapter five. Can you see what it says? [I Kings 5:27-30]
King Solomon conscripted labourers from all Israel, 30,000 men. He sent them off to Lebanon in shifts of 10,000 a month. So they spent one month in Lebanon, two months at home… Solomon had 70,000 carriers and 80,000 stonecutters in the hills, as well as 3,300 foreman who supervised… How many people did he have building the Temple? Can you do your arithmetic? (Congregation member speaks) A lot, exactly so. Precisely so, 183,000 and some, okay? That remind you of anything? When was the last time you heard about the Israelites being turned into a labour force? (Congregation member speaks) Correct. Hang on, we were supposed to leave Egypt, right? Solomon seems to have taken the people back into slavery.
Now, have a look here at source 20, right? Can you see that? [I Kings 9:20-23] All the people who were left of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, the Jebusites who were not of the people of Israel, these Solomon drafted to be slaves, and so they are to this day. But the people of Israel Solomon made no slaves. (slaps podium) Can you read that? The Torah has to tell us, King Solomon didn’t make the Israelites slaves. (bangs podium for emphasis) That’s quite striking, is it not? Tell me, how long did it take? How long does it take to build a house in Hampstead Garden Suburb?
How long did it take Solomon to build the Temple? Anyone know? Have a look, source 21. [I Kings 6:37-38] In the fourth year the foundation of the House of the Lord was laid, in the month of Ziv. And in the 11th year, in the month of Bul, which is the eighth month, the house was finished in all its parts, according to all its specifications. He was seven years in building it. It took him seven years to build the Temple, okay? Now look at the very next verse in Tanach. Can you see it?
[I Kings 7:1] Solomon was building his own house thirteen years. Is that telling you something? He spent almost twice as long building his own palace as he spent building a House for God. So the Temple was a wonderful, wonderful thing, the greatest thing ever, but it practically reduced the whole of the Israelites to slavery. So that the Torah has to tell us, well he didn’t actually make them into slaves, because at the end of seven years they could go free. And he spent twice as long building a house for himself as he spent building a House for God. That is a bit of a critique, right?
Now, do you remember what God said to David, when David said, “I’ve got to build a Temple for God.” Anyone know what God said? Have a look, source 23, I’ve given it to you in the Hebrew and the English, we’ll read it in the English. Solomon says to the Prophet Nathan, “I want to build a house for God.” Nathan says, that’s a great idea, go ahead and do it. But, then we read… [II Samuel 7:4-7] But that night the word of the Lord came to Natan, Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord, would you build Me a house to dwell in? I haven’t lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Egypt to this day. I’ve been moving about in a Tent for My dwelling. In all the places I’ve moved with the people of Israel, did I speak a word about any of the Judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd My people, saying, “Why haven’t you built Me a house of cedar?”
I don’t want a House. I’m happy with a Tent. So, we see that there is an undercurrent here. It’s not the primary meaning, the Beit HaMikdash was the holiest thing ever, but there’s an undercurrent that God didn’t want this kind of palace. That it would turn the Israelites into a corvée, a nation of slave labourers. That it would be like every other nation and every other nation in the ancient world, the modern world and everything in between. You want to announce, I’m great? You build monumental buildings. Everyone did it. Every, single nation there ever was. And God is saying to David, do you think I’m like that? Did I ever ask for such a thing? I was happy with a Tent. What was the name of that tent, by the way? It was called the Mishkan. Incidentally, how do English Bibles translate the word “Mishkan”. Anyone know? (congregation member answers: Tabernacle) “Tabernacle”. Does that remind you of something. (congregation members: Succot – the Festival of Tabernacles) Are you with me? So, as house is to succah, so mikdash is to Mishkan as Temple is to Tabernacle. Right?
Now, I asked you a simple question. Who lived in a succah in the Torah? The Israelites, never. But what is the root of the word succah? Anyone know? What do we call the roof of a succah? S’chach. The root of succah is s’chach. Does that word appear anywhere in the Torah? The answer is yes, it appears twice. In which context, does anyone know? In the Mishkan, right?
There it is. Source 24 [Shemot 25:20-22] Vehayu hakeruvim, The cherubs, above the Aron [the Ark] right? The cherubs, porsay chnafayim lemalah, they spread their hands over them, sochechim bechanfayhem al-hakaporet. They comfort him. They were overshadowing, they were protecting, they were shadowing the kaporet. Al hakaporet uf’nayhem ish el-achiv el hakaporet. And the cherubs were facing one another. And that is in parshat Terumah, in which we have the command to build the Mishkan and the same words appear in parshat Vayakhel when they actually made the succah.
The only context in which s’chach appears in the Torah is in relation to the Mishkan. There is a place where, I’m not sure if it’s the Temple, I’m not sure if it’s the Temple, none of the commentators are sure it’s the Temple, but does anyone know what harachamon we say in benching on Chol HaMoed Succot? (congregation members answer) Harachamon hu yakim lanu et succat David Hannofalet. Right. You will see that that is a quote from Amos in source 26. Can you see it? [Amos 9:11] Bayom hahu akim et-succat David hanofellet. I will restore the succah of David that has fallen down. And remember what God said to David. I prefer living in a tent than a palace, than a House of cedar.
Now I’m going to ask you a very simple question. Which of the patriarchs lived in a house? Did Abraham live in a house? No, he lived in a tent. Did Isaac live in a house? No, he lived in a tent. You know who lived in houses? Have a look, source 27. Bereishit 19, you remember? Two angels come to Lot in Sodom. [Bereishit 19:2] Vayomer hineh na-adonay suru na el-bat avadechem… Lot lives in a house. Abraham lives in a tent. You know who else lives in a house? Look at source 28. [Bereishit 24:23] Vayomer bat-mi at hagidi na li hayesh beit avich makom lanu lalin. Abraham’s servant has come to find a wife for Isaac, who lives in a house? Laban. Okay, Laban lives in a house, Lot lives in house. Is that a good advertisement for a house? Not really, okay? Abraham lives in a tent, Isaac lives in a tent. Who is the first patriarch who lives in a house? Here is the verse, can you see it? Source 29.
Now, listen, this has to be one of the strangest verses in the whole of the Torah. Listen carefully, can you see it, source 29. [Bereishit 33:17] VaYaacov nassa succotah, and Jacob travelled to Succot, vayiven lo bayit, and he made for himself a house, the first patriarch to make for himself a house, ulemiknayhu assah succot, but for his cattle, he made succot. And he is about to celebrate the fact that he’s the first patriarch to build a house. What do you think he’s going to call the place? Beit something or other, right? Bet-El? Beit-Lechem? You name it. What does he call the place? Al kain kara shem hamakim Succot! Succot! There you are, you just bought a house in Hampstead Garden Suburb and you name it after your garage. I mean, have you ever seen anything more extraordinary? And what is Jacob telling us, the whole time? Jews don’t have to live in houses to feel secure. I’m happy to live in succot, my animals live in succot, I’m happy to live there.
What does God say in parshas Behar? When you come to the land, the Land, you will never own it in perpetuity. Why? Ki li ha’aretz ki geirim vetoshavim atem imadi [Vayikra 25:23] “You are mere strangers and temporary residents, as far as I’m concerned.”
In other words, even though you live safely in the Land of Israel, never forget where you came from. Never so settle down that you become complacent. Veram veshavevcha veshachachta, So that your heart is upraised and you forget where you came from and who you owe this to. Never forget. In the immortal words of the Beatles’ last recording, get back to where you once belonged.
So just as, even in Israel, they were supposed to remember the forty years of wandering in the desert, now you begin to see this extraordinary thing, that just as, even though they are worshipping in the Temple Solomon built, don’t forget how you first once had God living in your midst, in a succah, called the Mishkan, called the Tabernacle. You do not need great buildings of cedar and stone to find God. You can live in a little Mishkan or a portacabin, courtesy of Ikea, I have to tell you. And still God will be there. If, of course, you’re keruvim [cherubs] whose face was ish el re’eihu. You turn face to face to your human being. That is where the Shechinah lives. You remember where the Keruvim were facing in Solomon’s Temple? They were not facing one another, they were facing peneihem el haBayit. They were facing the House, they weren’t looking at each other.
The Gemara in Bava Batra, daf 99a says, when Israel do the will of God, the cherubs face each other. When they don’t do the will of God, they face the Bayit. That is an extraordinary Gemara. It’s telling us that the Mishkan was closer to what Hashem wanted than Solomon’s Temple. And what Succot is telling us is: Succot is when the Israelites went to the Temple and celebrated the produce of the fields and they thanked HaKadosh Baruch Hu, but they never forgot where they came from. Because every time a nation forgets its youth, its childhood, the hard times they had when they were struggling to make a go, they become decadent and they eventually decline and fall. But Jews never are allowed to do that because it’s enough that you’re gerim and toshavim, that you’re temporary residence, and you’re always asking Me [i.e. God] for another year of life. And it’s enough, don’t think you’ve got a great, big Temple, as good as the Egyptians, and the Mesopotamians. I tell you, I’m good enough with a Mishkan. Because that is the succah, that’s the s’chach, that memory of the Mishkan is good enough for Me.
And we now understand exactly the argument with which I began, which is Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer. What is a succah? Rabbi Akiva is right. A succah was a succah mamash. Not a hut the Israelites lived in but the Mishkan, the portable, temporary dwelling that God dwelled in. And Rabbi Eliezer was right when he said annanei kavod. Because where were the annanei kavod? (congregation member answers) Do you think they covered the people? If you look in the Torah, you will see they covered the Mishkan.
As long as they were in camp, the Cloud was over the Mishkan. When it moved beyond the Mishkan, then it was time to travel on. The Mishkan was a temporary dwelling.
But the odd thing is that the Temple was a permanent dwelling and yet it was destroyed twice, and we don’t have it anymore. But the Mishkan, which could move anywhere, because God is everywhere, became the symbol of the shul that you can build in Jerusalem, but also, not bad, in Hampstead Garden Suburb. That became the permanent symbol. The temporary became permanent and the permanent turned out only to be temporary.
Ki besuccot hoshavti et Bnei Yisrael – when I brought them out of Egypt [Vayikra 23:42] It wasn’t the Israelites who lived in a succah, it was God who lived in a succah. And the succah is telling us something absolutely unbelievable. That you don’t need to have megabucks to buy a home for God. All you need is a garden shed and a bit of faith. And you have your schach and they overshadow you the way the cherubs overshadowed the Ark. And between the Keruvim is the Clouds of Glory.
The simplest, poorest Jew, who turns his face to his brother or sister, and builds a little succah is bathed in Clouds of Glory. And he has built his own, private equivalent of the Mishkan.
I hope we have seen, on this little journey through the sources, aspects of Succot and Kohelet that we never saw before. But the basic moral is very profound. That even though the world sometimes seems very dark and full of danger, and even though we all worry, how’s my health going to be, is God going to write me in the Book of Life, how long do I have left? Succot says no. You can experience eternity in a moment. All you have to do is celebrate. Simcha.
And number two, you do not need a magnificent building to invite guests. All you do is build a shed, and you’ll have the Ushpizin, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob themselves, personally visiting you, trying to taste your honey cake. And, one way or another, all you need to do is to love one another, and turn our faces to one another, and have enough faith in God, this temporary life and this temporary dwelling become filled with the Clouds of Glory. So may it be for all of us.
May Hashem bathe us in the Clouds of His Glory and write us in the Book of Life. Ketiva vechatima tova. Thank you.