Sermon: Sukkot Kol Hamoed (Rabbi Maurice Michaels)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 21 March 2015

The phrase ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ isn’t used as often now as it was in my youth.  Indeed, if it were, it would be deemed a lie.  Technological advances in the fields of medicine and agriculture, engineering and transport,  and communications, have created a continuing series of initiatives and novel products and services.  But as we just heard, for the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes everything was the same.  The opening words are ‘Divrei Kohelet’ from which it derives it’s Hebrew name.  Kohelet is generally translated as the Preacher, from the root khl, meaning to assemble, therefore one who adresses the assembly.  The superscription continues ‘ben David melech Y’rushalayim’, son of David, king in Jerusalem’ and so he is therefore taken traditionally as Solomon, but all the evidence is for a later dating.  As is often the case in the books of the Tanach, the use of Solomon’s name is intended to give added credibility. Tradition has it that Solomon wrote three books: the Song of Songs, a love poem, in his youth; the Book of Proverbs, full of wisdom, in his prime; and Kohelet, regarded as somewhat cynical, in his old age.  The book is regarded as part of what’s known as Wisdom literature and is included in the third part of the biblical canon, K’tuvim, the Writings.  But this was not without dissension, as is recorded in the Mishnah, with a number of rabbis questioning its validity as a holy book.

So why was it included?  In all probability it owes its position to the supposed Solomonic authorship, but if it wasn’t Solomon, then who?  Again it’s impossible to say, but almost certainly it’s the work of one author, with the exception of the last few verses, added by one, or perhaps even two, editors.  The likely timing of the book’s writing is probably around 3rd or 4th century BCE.  This is deduced from the language being later than that of Ezra and Nehemiah and the last prophet, Malachi, on the one hand, and a copy of the book being found in the Qumran caves, on the other.  It was most likely written in Israel, even Jerusalem, although there is a view that it could have been written in Alexandria in Egypt, where there was a large Jewish population at that time.

Within the canon, it’s one of the five m’gillot and as such allocated to a particular day for reading, although it always seemed to me that in this case it was by a process of elimination.  Having, by good reason, allocated the other four m’gillot to Purim, Pesach, Shavu’ot and Tish’a b’Av, Sukkot and Kohelet were left, and so put together.  Rabbi Dr Victor Reichart, who wrote one of the introductions for the Soncino commentary, says, “Perhaps it was to strike the balance of sanity that the sages chose the the recital of Ecclesiastes, with its melancholy refrain ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’, on the Festival of Tabernacles when the Jew is commanded to rejoice.” Anyway, the shabbat during Sukkot was chosen, unless there were two shabbatot, in which case it’s read on the second.  In reform communities we tend to read just an excerpt as the Haftarah for chol hamoed shabbat.

So having taken up all that time in introducing the book, ‘what’ you might ask, ‘is it all about?  What is its message?  Some commentators regarded it as a poem and therefore open to a broad range of interpretation, while others take it as a piece of prose .  To be honest, it’s difficult to summarise it easily as its full of contradictions, one of the reasons why the rabbis didn’t want it to be included in the canon in the first place.  It seems to be a struggle between faith on the one hand and the futility of it all on the other. Now it may of course be a deliberate setting out of two alternative moods. It might also be the inner struggle with the happy ending, certainly the final verses are probably what convinced the rabbis to include it, although as I’ve said these may well have been added by a later editor.  What is clear is that it is a personal confession: warm and human, fallible and wise, an attempt to find life’s meaning and purpose, a searching for truth.  But it’s not just personal, it refers to the political and social environment and the religious practice of its time.  The tone is decidedly sceptical and cynical in parts; Kohelet sees the world with wide open eyes, hating hypocrisy and sham, injustice and wrong, recognising the sadness of things. In the guise of King Solomon, he claims that he has exhausted all that wisdom, pleasure, and wealth can provide, and he has found that they are devoid of intrinsic significance.  However, the book is not universally despondent as often thought, it also contains a positive mood; it speaks of joy and beauty of life  For Kohelet, God is far removed from daily life, everything is ordained and cannot be changed.

There is another aspect which should perhaps be noted.  The very negativity of the book may have a positive outcome.  By showing that the usual pursuits of men: fame, wisdom, riches, are vain and empty, Kohelet is pointing to the value of spiritual matters, which may indeed be the message that the rabbis understood.  That and the penultimate verse, “The end of the matter, when all is said and done: fear God, and keep His commandments; for that is the whole duty of man.”