There are definitely moments in life when we all ask ourselves ‘is it me?’ When suddenly everything seems to go wrong, every word is misunderstood, every gesture is taken in the wrong way –we have to ask ourselves, ‘is it me?’
Personally, I try to notice patterns and trends in my life and when I end up asking myself if it’s me, the answer is usually ‘yes.’ I can easily be well in control of how I present myself or just as easily wear my shirt (or dress) inside out and be unaware. There are times I have tried on clothes in the store and couldn’t quite figure out how the straps are supposed to work. When I emerged from the change room, the saleswoman remarked on how creative I was by wearing it that way. She thought it was great, I felt ridiculous and stood at a crossroads. Do I say ‘thank you’ or do I ask her how it should be worn? Is there a set and prescribed way to do everything? Are accidents welcomed or is every accident, in fact, an authentic expression of who we are and how we think? If so, of course we would get that particular thing wrong. I once had a fashion expert tell me that I dress the way I do because I live inside my head. I’m not sure how anyone would not live inside their heads…can’t get my head around that…so, indeed, it’s me.
I think about that question of having things go wrong in our lives, seemingly in waves of recurrence, and the things we try to do ‘correctly’ and then can’t. The beauty of it is that we’re all in the same boat –it happens to all of us. In fact, it’s part of the human condition and therefore timeless and so we find it central to the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiates, the book we are to read on the holiday of Sukkot.
One of the names for Sukkot is ‘Chag Ha’Asif’, the Holiday of the Gathering, clearly referring to the harvest that is part of the holiday. Interestingly, the word Kohelet translates as ‘The Gatherer’, and is the way Solomon refers to himself as the narrator. It starts with a famous verse everyone has heard (and then sighs): “Vanity of vanity, all is in vain”, the classic Biblical citation for ‘whatever’ or ‘why bother’ or ‘if I’m only going to sleep in my bed again tonight, why should I bother making it in the morning?’ Kohelet continues by concluding over and over “there is nothing new under the sun”…(sigh).
Because we understand “all is in vain” as the concluding statement, the tone of the book becomes very depressing and sad. If nothing I do matters, if it’s all in vain anyway, why do I bother to invest myself? But, what if it weren’t the conclusion but the introduction?
The word being repeated in Hebrew, translated as ‘vanity’, is the word ‘hevel’ (“hevel havalim, hakol hevel”). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first time we see this word is in Genesis, it is the name of Eve’s second child: Abel (Hevel). Abel is killed by his brother Cain, for no good reason and with no formed intent to harm. It is the first death in the Torah, the first victim, the first broken human being. What if Kohelet is saying that our starting point in life is to recognize we are all Abel (“hakol hevel”) –we have all been hurt, we have all felt broken and we have all had moments when someone we loved wounded us deeply even though they didn’t intend to. It is not where we all arrive, it is where we all start.
Sharing instances of human frailty connect us and can produce some of our most powerful steps forward, or we conclude we are weak and therefore a life is lived in vain. It is not the conclusion that the book is presenting, it is the challenge.
So why would we read it on Sukkot? Another name for Sukkot (yes, it is the holiday with a whole list of names) is ‘Zman Simchatainu’, ‘the Time of Our Joy’. Interestingly, the book of Kohelet concludes by saying that if there is nothing new under the sun, what is the point? The point is to live a life where we find joy from within what already exists. The change lies within us, not around us. Now it makes perfect sense that we would read Kohelet during Sukkot. In the moments when I conclude that, in fact, the problem is me, why can’t I figure out how simple straps on a dress should work? Why have my children appointed one of them to look me over before any public lecture (check list of what shouldn’t be tucked into what and that clothes are right side in and price tags are gone) –it is who I am, there will be nothing new under the sun. The things that are in vain are the moments we could waste by not recognizing we all get things wrong. Sometimes it’s major, sometimes it’s minor, sometimes we hurt ourselves and sometimes we hurt others when we only meant to have a good day. We are all Abel and then Sukkot reminds us to listen to the end of Kohelet: now find the joy!