Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose…death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. — Steve Jobs
The Jewish holiday of Sukkot forces us to confront the impermanence of life. When we sit in the sukkah, we are surrounded by nature and the reminder that everything dies.
In the Sukkah, we remember that we are part of nature, and that like nature we will also die. Death is part of the lifecycle.
This is one of the most crucial teachings of Sukkot.
The signature reading on Sukkot is the book of Kohelet, also known as Ecclesiastes. On the surface it’s a depressing lament from a king who lost all meaning in life despite having accumulated vast material wealth and outward “success.”
Kohelet repeatedly returns to the observation that “life is fleeting breath.”
In today’s culture we might say that the author of Kohelet — generally considered to be King Solomon — is “languishing.”
But Kohelet is not languishing. He is offering wisdom on how to avoid languishing.
We think we can cheat death by avoiding it, or by building things that will last forever: writing books, creating businesses that will outlive us, accumulating money, building buildings and monuments. We seek security in the material.
But the material doesn’t last. Even the strongest and most well-made buildings don’t last. The temple that King Solomon constructed was destroyed. Twenty years after 9/11, I still have the image of the World Trade Center buildings crumbling, without warning, like a house of cards. Look at how storms and fires have destroyed homes. The condo collapse in Surfside, Florida.
Kohelet and Sukkot remind us that physical and material security are illusions. There is no security even in a “permanent” home.
Kohelet teaches that even in the absence of security we can experience joy.
Happiness depends on external circumstances. Joy comes from within.
We can choose to feel joy at any moment.
We can choose to approach our work with joy even if the work is hard.
It’s easy to forget this, especially when we get pulled into comparison despair or feel the weight of expectations sitting on our shoulders.
So for a week we eat in little huts, out in nature. Nature is the great equalizer. In nature we are all the same, all equally vulnerable to the elements.
Sukkot isn’t the only time we remember our impermanence. Judaism in general is filled with reminders of death. For example, at a wedding, the groom steps on a glass to remember the destruction of the Temple.
Every happy occasion is tinted with reminders of death and destruction. Not to lessen the joy, but to enhance it.
It is only through remembering the tenuous nature of life that we can bring ourselves back to the present, where we can fully enjoy each breath, each moment.
life is fleeting breath
so find joy in this moment
nothing else matters