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““Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit has man in all his toil that he toils under the sun?” These words of disenchantment open the book of Ecclesiastes, which Jews read this Saturday during the weeklong holiday of Sukkot.
Everything has an appointed season, but what makes this biblical book fitting to study on this holiday? Sukkot is known as the “time of our happiness,” a festival where God commands Jews to “have nothing but joy.” Yet Ecclesiastes seems to brim with dour messages.
In search of meaning, the author, traditionally understood to be King Solomon, investigates “all the deeds that were done under the sun,” and finds, “behold, everything is vanity and frustration.” The world, he observes, is fundamentally unjust: “The race does not belong to the swift, nor the war to the mighty; neither do the wise have bread, nor do the understanding have riches, nor the knowledgeable, favor; for time and fate will overtake them all.”
His effort to “appraise wisdom” produces only ennui, “because the wise man, just like the fool, is not remembered forever; for, as the succeeding days roll by, both are forgotten. Alas, the wise man dies, just like the fool!” Further, “as wisdom grows, vexation grows; To increase learning is to increase heartache.” “And so I loathed life,” the ruler reckons, “For I was distressed by all that goes on under the sun, because everything is vanity and pursuit of wind.”
Yet Ecclesiastes is far from nihilistic, and a deeper understanding of what Solomon means by “vanity” is the key to making sense of Sukkot. “Vanity” is the common translation of the Hebrew word hevel, which literally means “vapor” or “breath.” Hence, “fleeting” is a more suitable translation.
Solomon emphasizes that life is short but not meaningless. Consider Ecclesiastes 9:9, an exhortation to man, with hevel translated in this way: “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun—all your fleeting days, for that is your portion in life and in your toil that you toil under the sun.” A disposition to enjoy life transforms its ephemerality from a source of anxiety to a focus on the healthy pleasures of humanity. Life becomes an end in itself.”
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