Philosophy is an intimidating subject. Most of us would rather deal
with concrete intellectual and emotional issues, something into which
we can get our teeth - and our hearts. And yet, during the Festival of
Sukkoth, amidst our most joyous celebrations, our Sages instituted the
reading of King Solomon’s Koheleth (Ecclesiastes), an often brooding
work that agonizes over the philosophical problems of existence. What
is the connection between this work and the transcendent joy of
Sukkoth? What message does it carry that could not have been
delivered in a more conventional form?
Let us take a brief look into this penetrating book. In its recurring
theme, Solomon declares, “All is emptiness,” the pleasures of the world
are all without value. More than any other Jewish king in history,
Solomon enjoyed virtually limitless honor, wealth and luxury. He had
vast properties, numerous slaves and one thousand wives and
concubines. His palaces were adorned with the most exquisite works of
art, and his tables were laden with the finest foods and wines. No
material pleasures were denied to him, and no one was in abetter
position to assess their true value. Having sampled everything that the
material world had to offer, he was able to step back and take an
honest look at it. And he concluded that all was emptiness. The only
reality was to fear and obey Hashem.
So what are we meant to derive from this philosophical evaluation?
How can we relate to concepts of extreme unreality when we’ve just
taken out a mortgage on a house and the car needs a new brake job?
Let us look a little further into the words of King Solomon. “For
everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under
Heaven, a time to be born, a time to die, a time to plant, a time to
uproot, a time to weep, a time to laugh, a time to grieve, a time to
dance.” These lines, so clearly profound and meaningful, have been
quoted and paraphrased and borrowed for poems and songs the world
over. But what do they really mean? What insight into the meaning of
time is immortalized in King Solomon’s enigmatic words?
Time, if we stop to think about it, is an inexorable current which
sweeps us along through the passages of life. It is the framework in
which we live, the receptacle of our experiences. We create terms and
classifications - years, days, hours, minutes, seconds - in a vain attempt
to gain a modicum of control over time, but it remains uncontrollable.
We feel its relentless flow through our very beings. There is no stop
button, no pause button. The unstoppable tick of the clock controls our
lives. But what is this thing called time? Is it merely the passive blank
canvas on which we paint the stories of our lives? Or is it something of
far deeper significance?
These are the questions King Solomon is addressing. “For
everything there is a season.” Time is more than a path upon which we
tread. Time is Hashem’s most amazing creation in the natural world. It
is a dynamic force, the source of all life energies. The mystical sources
point out that time is not defined by the artificial units we assign to it
but by the different energies and emanations that infuse it. One particular
block of time may be charged with the energies of planting, and that
activity is therefore most suited to it. Another block may be charged with
the energies of uprooting, and so forth. Each moment has its distinctive
challenges and opportunities, and therefore, only by tapping into the
correct energy source of each moment of time can we utilize it to its
fullest and capture it.
“All is emptiness,” King Solomon tells us. The only reality is that
which can be contained and preserved in time. The accumulation of
material possessions has no real value. It does not connect with the
synergies of time. It is no better than a boulder by the riverside, left
behind by the rampaging current. Only the way we live and the things
we do penetrate to the core of time and are carried along with us
through and beyond our lifetimes.
On the Festival of Sukkoth, when we begin the new year with a
clean slate, King Solomon’s profound message shines for us like a
beacon in the dark. Throughout the year, we have been caught up in
the mad rush of the daily grind, pummeled by the spinning hands of the
clock. We have allowed ourselves to be subjected to the tyranny of
time. But with our new insight into time, we can harness and control this
relentless flow. If we can perceive the nature of time as it passes, if we
do not plant in a time of uprooting nor weep in a time of laughing, we
can spare ourselves the frustrations of futility and find serenity and
peace of mind. Only then can we capture and preserve the capsules of
time for all eternity.