I mention Kohellet, the Book of Ecclesiastes, and what comes to mind? The words of the song. In short, the extent of most of our knowledge surrounding Ecclesiastes reflects the teaching of Pete Seeger as interpreted by The Byrds:
“To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven”
Yet Ecclesiastes is much more than a time for every purpose under heaven; in fact, the pairs of polarities offered in those verses have just a little to do, I would suggest, with the rest of the book and the way we understand them. The words are ascribed to King Solomon – and we are told to read all of Ecclesiastes at this time of year, during Sukkot, as the leaves fall from the trees and the grey of winter sets in. This is surely not the young Solomon of Song of Songs filled with love and hope and desire. And this is definitely not the middle aged Solomon with all kinds of practical advice offered in Proverbs. No, this is the aged Solomon and one can hear that age in his words.
So, as he nears the end of his life, what has Solomon learned? He has learned that it is not about doing well; rather, it is about doing good. As my colleague Rabbi Francine Roston summarized, “he who dies with the most toys — is still dead.”
On Yom Kippur we stood before God in heaven; on Sukkot, we bring God down to earth, into this world. To quote my classmate Rabbi Art Gould misappropriating Dr. Seuss, “So build a sukkah one and all/make it large or make it small.” We build our sukkot, each of us, in slightly different ways, those temporary and impermanent dwelling places reflecting the fleeting days of our lives. And we are commanded in the biblical text, “vesamahta be-hageha – to rejoice, to be happy, in our festival.” But the ancient rabbis said to read the Hebrew instead as “ve-see-mahta- to cause to rejoice, to cause to be happy.” So how do we rejoice? By bringing joy to others – to our family and friends, surely, but also and more specifically, to the stranger, to the orphan, to the widow, to those who are without, to those unable to support themselves, to the poor and the powerless. We give them shelter; we give them food. We work to make this the world God so desires, attempting to reduce the distance between the world that is and the world that ought to be. Of course Sukkot is also a story of refugees wandering, traveling from one place to the next and then to the next. Our tradition even tells us that we dwelt in Sukkot during our 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. In fact, our story begins with the words, “my father was a wandering Aramaen.” Our task now is to go out and welcome those who are wandering into our sukkot.
Our congregation will provide many opportunities to help us do this as we continue our work with refugees and new immigrants from around the world; as we continue to learn how to ensure health care for all in our land; and as we continue, week by week, reaching out to our neighbors with food and with drink. You will find elsewhere in Ha-Kol many of these opportunities which await you. In that way, we do good as we help God in the words of hashkiveinu: u’fros aleinu sukkat sh’lomeha – may God spread over all of us the Sukkah of peace.”