On the holiday of Sukkot, a time of great rejoicing, the seminal reading is the book of Kohelet, also known by its Greek name, Ecclesiastes.
Kohelet was written by King Solomon, a man who amassed a great fortune, who had the external trappings of success. And yet it is a journey of a man who is wrestling with the larger question of meaning.
The mindset of Kohelet is relatable to any high achiever in modern times.
When Having it All = Having Nothing
Of all the hardship that exists in our world, perhaps nothing produces more despair than to reach the pinnacle of accomplishment and achievement, to feel that you’ve climbed to the peak of the mountain, to have it all, only to look around and wonder:
Is this all there is?
Who hasn’t plodded and struggled on the path to a destination only to reach it and realize,
There is no ‘there’ there.
Is there any greater sense of futility than to reach the point where you have it all, yet realize that you have nothing?
I remember the first time I heard Tony Robbins articulate the emptiness of achievement without fulfillment. It put words to something I had felt many times before.
A Crisis of Meaning
Kohelet is the work of a man who has found himself questioning his path, and who dares to wrestle with the accepted wisdom. He pokes and prods at the apparent truths to reveal their opposites, which are in themselves profound truths.
This is a book written by a man who has amassed a material fortune only to find emptiness inside.
He had everything. Except meaning. Except purpose. Except joy.
The book of Ecclesiastes is often considered a grim accounting of life. It seems to tell us that nothing matters.
We will all die eventually. We don’t control our legacy. The righteous suffer the same fate as the wicked.
So what’s it all for?
It appears to be a crisis of meaning. But within the text, he offers the antidote to meaninglessness.
The Antidote: Finding Joy
Joy is not the same as happiness.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explains that happiness is based on circumstance, but joy is available to us regardless of our life conditions.
Rainer Maria Rilke explains,
The reality of joy in our world is indescribable; only in joy does creation take place (happiness, on the contrary, is only a promising, intelligible constellation of things already there); joy is a marvelous increasing of what exists, a pure addition out of nothingness….
How superficially must happiness engage us, after all, if it can leave us time to think and worry about how long it will last.
Joy is available to us in the here and now. With each breath, regardless of our circumstances, our material wealth, our accomplishments, or our achievements.
This is one of the principal lessons of the Festival of Sukkot: that we can find joy even in the temporary dwelling of the Sukkah, while vulnerable to the outside elements.
After all, all dwellings are temporary.
Kohelet, rather than being a meditation on the meaninglessness of life, is really a proclamation of the power of the present moment — the moment in which we find joy.
- Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Introduction to the Koren Sukkot Machzor ↩