One explanation for the custom of reading Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in the synagogue during Sukkot is that since the festival puts us in such a joyous mood, we need to be reminded, in the words of the book’s author, King Solomon, that “all is futile … there is nothing new under the sun.”
The biblical account of a struggle to understand the meaning of life in the shadow of its inevitable end is infused with pessimism.
But given the current state of affairs in our chaotic world, I figured we surely didn’t need Kohelet to mitigate our supposed elation and jubilation this Sukkot. Far from it. We have endured seven months of unparalleled anxiety and anguish, and it has taken a devastating toll.
Still, as I sat and read the words of Kohelet this holiday, I did have a change of heart, which I’ll explain later.
As our first winter under Covid draws near, with its shorter days and colder nights, the realization hits home that we are in unchartered territory, with a litany of reasons to feel down.
We are experiencing the worst pandemic in a century, which has crushed our society, economy and spirits for the last seven months; we are living through the most chaotic and dangerously divisive presidential election campaign in history; racial tensions are the worst since the 1960s riots; and as wildfires have burned out of control across wide swaths of the northwest and hurricanes pummel the south, climate change has become a global emergency.
Perhaps most disturbing is the feeling that there may be no way out of these dire predicaments, at least anytime soon; what once seemed like a temporary sprint through a medical crisis is now revealed to be a marathon.
Back in March and April, as distraught as we were, we somehow assumed our lives would be back on track by the summer. But while the summer has come and gone, the coronavirus remains, with concern for a second wave this winter. We’re slowly accepting the distinct possibility that the virus may be with us for a year, or more – until a vaccine is found, distributed and proven effective for hundreds of millions of people around the world.
On the political front, we assumed that the presidential campaign, though chaotic and deeply divisive, would culminate with the Nov. 3 Election Day results. But it now seems increasingly likely that unless there is a near-landslide victory for Joe Biden, the vote-counting may go on for weeks – and the president has made clear on numerous occasions that unless the vote breaks his way he would regard it as fraudulent. There is no indication that he would cede defeat, creating the possibility of endless legal battles and even civil warfare.
Most recently, in his personal dealing with the coronavirus, the president has literally been unmasked – by his own hand, and through his public statements – as a leader without empathy. (Did anyone hear him express concern for his wife or close aides who took ill when he did?)
Rather than express a sense of humility for having dismissed the seriousness and danger of the virus or note the tragic toll it has taken on far too many of its victims, the president relishes the role of having “beat” the disease. If that is the case, it’s due to the intervention of the best medical care in the world. It does not vindicate his defiance of the safety rules called for by his Covid team that, had he been a real role model, might have reduced the impact of this ongoing crisis and saved countless lives.
The president boasts “I feel so powerful,” but we as a society have been weakened and humbled in so many ways these last, long months. Our perception of American exceptionalism has been sorely tested. Where we once led the world in might and moral vision, today we lead the world in the scope of our failure to counter Covid. Where leaders and citizens around the world once envied America as a beacon of democracy and partnership, today they express pity for our plight and concern for our having turned inward.
The citizens of our country will soon have a chance ‘to speak.’
But in reading Kohelet on Sukkot, I took comfort in the words of the most memorable passage of its 12 brief chapters. “There is a season for everything,” it begins, “and a time for every purpose under the heavens: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to reap; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up.”
It goes on, and includes “a time to keep, and a time to cast away … a time to keep silent, and a time to speak.”
Those moving words offer a much-needed perspective for the moment we are in now, a reminder that, in other wise words attributed to King Solomon, “this, too, shall pass.”
There are brighter days ahead. And the citizens of our country will soon have a chance “to speak.” I pray we choose wisely — toward decency, toward healing, and toward, not away from, each other.
Gary Rosenblatt (Gary@jewishweek.org) is the editor at large of The Jewish Week.