Drash on Shabbat Chol HaMoed
Rabbi Allison H Conyer
Emanuel School, Randwick, NSW
I recently had the privilege to officiate at the funeral of a woman who was 102 years old. She had an extraordinary life. Born in Czechoslovakia, she moved to Madagascar then to Australia. She spoke 5 languages and was blessed with 3 children, 6 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren. Her husband died at an early age and she was forced to work hard after living a very privileged life. Her entire family said that she never complained and always had a smile on her face. This amazing woman was thrown a number of challenges during her lifetime and chose to see her cup half full rather than half empty.
Another funeral at which I co-officiated many years ago was that of a seven-year-old boy. I will never forget the pain and anguish of his parents and the entire community over a life that was taken too soon. Nor will I forget the 22-year-old man who made aliyah, served 3 years in the Israeli army, went to an American university to earn a degree in International Relations to help bring peace to the region, and was killed by a drunk driver.
On the heels of the Yamim Noraim, after reading the confronting declaration of Unatanah Tokef, proclaiming that G-d counts us like sheep, judges each one of us individually and collectively, and determines our fate, I always find myself distressed. Why does one person live to the age of 102 while other dies at 7? How can one survive service on the front lines of the Israeli Defence Forces and die at the hands of a drunk university student? Life and death do not seem fair. There seems to be no rhyme or reason. It’s the age-old question “Why do good things happen to bad people?” or “How can the wicked go unpunished?”
Nearly 3000 years ago, a great sage wrote a book pining over these issues – what is the purpose of life when good and bad, right and wrong do not seem to receive the appropriate consequence. The Jewish tradition credits King Solomon as the author of this great book - Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes. Biblical scholarship, however, posits that the book, or scroll, was written by an unknown congregational leader.
Our Rabbinic Sages determined that Megillat Kohelet was to be read on Sukkot, although the connection between the two was not obvious. Why, when Sukkot is termed “Z’man Simchateinu – The Time of Our Joy” do we read such a confronting, seemingly pessimistic and depressing book? Kohelet writes “Hevel havelim… ha’kol havel, commonly translated as “Utter futility, all is futile.” or “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.” The word “hevel” in Hebrew refers to mist, or the breath we see on a cold day. It’s there, but not there. Trying to capture it is, as Kohelet says “in pursuit of wind.” In other words, pointless. Trying to make sense of life is pointless.
Kohelet tells the story of a king who has all he could want and near the end of his life decided to embark on a quest to understand “all that happens under the sun.” He believed that wisdom was the greatest virtue and folly was its opposite. Yet he recognised whether wise or foolish, all people meet the same end. So he asked himself, what was the point. In short, the message of Kohelet was that everything in life has a cycle. Our lives, our time on earth, are just part of that cycle. There is much in life that is out of our control. We have only to appreciate the good in our lives as “a gift from G-d.” To me, this means that each one of us is given a glass with the waters of life. We have no control over how much water is put in the glass. We do have in our control how we appreciate or resent what is put in our glass.
As we know, Sukkot is celebrated 5 days after Yom Kippur. We move from a time of deep introspection - looking at our actions, confessing and repenting for all that we have done wrong as individuals and as a community - to a time where we focus on the joy in our lives. Sukkot reminds us how important it is to express appreciation for all that is going right in our lives and in the world around us. It is so easy to hold on to the bad in the world and the disappointments, despair and frustrations in our lives. Sukkot and Kohelet implore us to take time out to enjoy the fruits of our labour and count our gifts from G-d.
I wish everyone the time and space to be able to identify and appreciate the gifts in our lives and to truly celebrate a z’man simchatainu – a time of rejoicing. Chag Sameach.