Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris – 13 October 2019
:הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים אָמַר קֹהֶלֶת הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
[Eccl 1: 2, King James Bible translation]
The book of Ecclesiastes begins, and most likely ends as well (if one assumes with most critical scholars that Eccl 12: 9 – 14 is a later emendation), with this proclamation. But although the King James translation has immortalised in English the rendering of הֲבֵל as ‘vanity’ to the modern reader this translation might well be lost in the midst of linguistic migration. ‘Vanity’ for the 17th century translator meant something worthless, devoid of meaning. For us 21st century readers, vanity likely means something rather opposite – a surplus of attention directed to one’s appearance, excessive pride in one’s achievements, too much egotism. But a better translation of הֲבֵל would be mist, vapour, ephemerality. The new JPS translation has ‘futility’. For the author of Ecclesiastes everything is simply insubstantial, passing before we can even grasp it.
Perhaps this verse best sums up why Ecclesiastes is the Megillah we read on Sukkot. The tradition of reading Ecclesiastes on this festival can be traced at least as far back as Rashi. I like to imagine Rashi and his fellow Jews sitting in the midst of a northern European autumn, watching the leaves fall from the trees and the days shortening. From their vantage point they can see that as the seasons of warmth and light begin to pass into cold and darkness, all may feel truly fleeting and brief.
Sukkot itself is a testament to the precarious nature of our lives. We are commanded to build highly temporary structures that are open to the elements, to sit in them and eat our meals. The sukkah is meant to be version of those ancient shelters our ancestors built as they travelled, wandering in the desert for forty years. But the sukkah is far more, a living symbol of the ephemerality of our existence. To sit in a sukkah with its leafy roof through which leaks starlight and dew and the chill of an autumn evening is to remember that the security we have built in our lives is illusory.
But reflecting on such matters requires a high degree of privilege. Pondering the vanity of life can only be done by those of us high enough up the socio-economic ladder to have the free time and security to care. Ecclesiastes himself tells us that he was ‘the son of David King in Jerusalem’ [Eccl 1: 1]. He could reflect on the fleeting nature of life because he had copious free time and all of his material needs were met. Sitting in a sukkah pondering existentialist philosophy, when we have a warm home to return to merely steps away, is a ritual game. Done well it helps build empathy and reflection.
And we need empathy and reflection more than ever in our society. Tselem, the Rabbinic Call for Social and Economic Justice in the UK, is asking us to make this Sukkot one devoted to the pressing need for more social housing, a timely reminder that for too many people in the UK, a sukkah would be a step up from where they currently eat and sleep. With so much on the political agenda, sometimes we can easily forget that autumn turns quickly into winter, but for people without homes to go, that reality is never far from their minds. Shelter currently has a petition up here asking our politicians to build more social housing and their website has much more information on the need for social housing. Tselem has been engaging in a ‘No DSS’ housing discrimination campaign in Manchester, which will be rolled out to Birmingham and Barnet soon.
So while for Ecclesiastes he may be able to reflect from his position of comfort that all is vanity, futility, transience, the lesson of the sukkah is something more – that in that impermanence there is life still to be lived and we, every one of us, need a secure place from which we can live that life. In that most passing mode of communication of them all, social media, do post at #socialhousingsukkot, if you or your community are doing something this Sukkot to make a difference.
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