We all know that life’s moments, like life itself, are temporary. Knowing this helps get us through challenging times. “This too shall pass,” as they say — the pain from a surgery, the death of a loved one, a relationship break-up, a first tooth coming in, failing a test, losing a job.
But it’s not just the hard things that are fleeting; joy is also temporary – a baby’s first smile, dancing late at a club, watching a sunset on vacation, a walk with a good friend, laughing with your partner, holding hands with a parent, achieving your monumental work goal, graduating from high school.
Sukkot, earth-based and almost “witchy” in its shaking of the lulav and etrog, is the great celebration of the temporary.
Kohelet (Ecclesiasties), the Jewish text read on Sukkot, begins: “Ephemeral, ephemeral, everything is ephemeral.” Some might translate it as, “breath, breath, all is breath,” or more traditionally, in a terrible translation, as “vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”
It may seem counterintuitive to read this nihilistic text in the middle of joyous sukkot, and after the God-heavy, moralistic Yom Kippur, but it is precisely this idea of what is temporary that allows us to feel the greatest joy, to relish a moment like a tasty treat, to feel truly ALIVE and present with what is. The sages called Sukkot zman simchateinu – “our time of joy.”
On Yom Kippur, we look deeply into the face of mortality in order to self-correct and make sure we are leading the life we want, and our relationships and community are repaired. On Sukkot, we look deeply into the face of what is fleeting – we sit in temporary homes, we acknowledge the transitions of nature – and we say, “come in and join me! let’s celebrate! let’s eat together.”
In the end it may all be temporary, but we have each other. We have the smells of the gourds, and the leaves. We ingather as we look toward the winter and recite these words from Ecclesiasties:
“For what does a person get from all his efforts and ambitions permeating the work he does under the sun? His whole life is one of pain, and his work is full of stress; even at night his mind gets no rest. This too is pointless. So there is nothing better for a man to do than eat, drink and let himself enjoy the good that results from his work. I also realized that this is from God’s hand. For who will eat and who will enjoy except me?”
The Jewish historian Josephus called Sukkot, “the most holy and important feast.” Sukkot is mentioned far more in the Torah than Yom Kippur, and the phrase Rosh Hashanah isn’t even mentioned at all! Sukkot is a continuation and climactic summation of the High Holy days, rather than a separate occurrence.
If you let this holiday pass you by, ask yourself: Do I favor self-criticism over joy? Do I truly let myself experience the fullness of happiness? Not a fake Pollyanna joy, but a joy that takes into account all of life’s challenges?
As Ecclesiasties reminds us:
No one can experience the joy of your life, except you.
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