October 5th, 2018
“Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” – Book of Ecclesiastes
I was at Lake Park Synagogue for a while last Saturday. The Jewish community there was still celebrating Sukkot, and because this Shabbat fell within the period of the week-long festival, the members of the Shul read the entirety of Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes. It is not required that the text be read, so it is also not required that the book be read by only men, which is usually the case in an Orthodox synagogue. Both men and women took turns reading from the book in Hebrew. I liked that. I followed along as best I could, and spent most of my time reading the English translation.
Kohelet is traditionally attributed to King Solomon. It is a brutally honest and unsettling part of Scripture. Like the Book of Job, nothing is sugar-coated. Although Sukkot is a time of rejoicing, Kohelet often focuses on death. So, in some ways, the text seems out of place.
Rabbi Dinin gave his drasha prior to the reading of Kohelet. I always find the drasha (sermon) in the synagogue to be interesting. This is mostly due to the fact that the sermons in the Shul offer to me a very different perspective on the Bible than what I am used to getting. I sometimes sit there and think, “Oh, so that’s what it all means.” The drasha forces me to adjust my thinking, which is both exciting and oddly irritating.
In his talk, the rabbi focused on two words in the book: simcha שִׂמְחָה, which can be translated as “pleasure”, and hevel הֶבֶל, which can be translated as “vanity” or “absurdity”. There is an undeniable tension in Kohelet. The author encourages each person to enjoy the good things in life (food, drink, loving relationships), but he also emphasizes that all these things are essentially meaningless. God wants us to enjoy whatever we can in life, but He does not want us to cling to these things, because they are all transitory.
As a member of a Zen sangha, this tension feels very familiar to me. It is almost Buddhist in a way. Zen does not demand a world-denying sort of asceticism. A person should experience everything that this world offers. The problem is one of attachment. Can I enjoy something and not be attached/addicted to it? Can I let it go? As Kohelet makes clear, we will let go. In the end we let go of all of it. Do we let go voluntarily or do we have these things torn away from us at our death?
I walked home from our church yesterday morning. It was a seven mile walk, and it took me more than two hours. I gazed at the blue sky and the scudding clouds. I looked at the sumac leaves that blazed bright red. Maple trees looked like pillars of orange flame. I saw one or two stray butterflies, seeking food from the ragged wildflowers along the bike path. A strong wind from the north blew my beard back into my face at times. It was a good walk. I enjoyed it. Now it’s done. I enjoyed it, and now I am letting it go. It was simcha, and it was hevel.
And now, at 3:30 AM, I finish this post. This is also both simcha and hevel.
I’m okay with that.