Tonight begins the Jewish “Festival of Tabernacles.” Known in Hebrew as Sukkot, we spend time in temporary outdoor dwellings.
They remind us of the fragility of life our ancestors experienced during their journey across the Sinai Desert.
Vanity, Vanity, All is Vanity!
The biblical book we read on Sukkot is Ecclesiastes. Tonight we will chant it in my synagogue.
I confess this book has always mystified me. Ecclesiastes seems to contradict other parts of the Bible.
Consider, for example, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” (1:2) Or “there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9)
The first suggests life is meaningless. We are all simply selfish people concerned with our needs. The second suggests the world is static. That leaves little room for God.
So how can we read Ecclesiastes? It’s part of the Bible, so we know it conveys God’s word. How do we make sense of it?
1. Remember what kind of book it is: The meaning of a book depends on the way you read it. We read a poem differently than we read a novel. We read history differently than we read science.
Ecclesiastes is not a theological book. It is more of an autobiographical reflection. It is the reflection of King Solomon, the wisest of Jewish kings.
He is sharing the wisdom from his life experience. He is not telling us what one must believe. He is recounting and reflecting on his life. He is conveying life lessons.
His feelings and observation may resonate with us, even if we do not believe in their literal truth.
And there are times when we know that life is not futile. When a new child comes into the world, when we see righteousness in action and justice prevail.
Ecclesiastes represents one side of life. And life is complex. As the book points out later, in another of its most memorable sections,
“There is a time for every season; A time for every purpose under heaven… A time to love and a time for hate; a time for war and a time for peace; a time to laugh and a time to grieve…” (3:1-8)
2. Remain Humble: Much of life is outside of our control. We did not choose to be born here. We did not choose our parents. Many of us simply got lucky. And no matter who we are, we face pain, and our lives are limited.
Time and chance, as Ecclesiastes puts it, befall us all. Reminding ourselves of this truth helps us remain grateful for what we have and accept with calmness the difficulties with which life challenges us.
3. Look for God in the tension: The Bible is not always say to decipher. Verses that seem inconsistent may contain a deeper level of congruence. The tension compels us to learn, pray and grow. Life emerges out of that tension.
Think of a battery. It is a positive charge and a negative charge. The tension between those charges creates the spark of energy that gives a device power.
So it is with us. The tension between life as it is and life as it ought to be–between the past and the future, between the world we we inhabit and the one to come–it is that tension that pushes us to live with grace and faith.
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