I’ve always found Sukkot to be a very romantic time. The commandment to be happy combined with evenings spent socializing in the sukkah, enjoying fall colors while cuddling closer for warmth in the chill of autumn nights—the spirit and practices of the holiday provide ample opportunities for loving moments.
But the traditional book read on Sukkot (Ecclesiastes/Kohelet) is not a romantic book. Kohelet (the name of the narrator) is certainly aware of love, though. In the chapter made famous by The Byrds, Kohelet asserts that there is, “A time to love, and a time to hate” (3:8). A quick reading paints Kohelet as a romantic of the carpe diem variety—this is, after all, the book that gave us “Eat, drink, and be merry” (variations at 2:24, 3:13, 8:15, 9:7).
But Kohelet is also an old, wealthy man speaking only to other men, with a clear heteronormative agenda. For instance, he advises, “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love all the days of the life of your vanity” (9:9), thus equating joy and heterosexual marriage. He also expresses some deep misogyny:
And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are fetters. He who pleases God shall escape from her, but the sinner shall be trapped by her….One upright man among a thousand have I found, but a woman among all these I have not found (7:26, 28).
In these verses, Kohelet exposes himself as the kind of man who may love a wife but fears women. Why is he like this?
I believe that Kohelet fears women because he fears love and life. The major message of the book is that everything is hevel, which literally means “vapor” and has also been translated as vain, futile, empty, meaningless, absurd and fleeting. A dying man intensely aware of the transience and lightness of life, Kohelet has given up on finding lasting, meaningful connections. He focuses on labor and enjoying the fruits of labor. Friends provide mere practical support (4:9-12); children eat up a fortune they did not earn (2:21). The “wisdom” of Kohelet is ultimately cynical and pragmatic—get yours while you can, enjoy it before you die, and don’t let anyone take it from you. To seek intimate connections is to court the possibility of disappointment and loss of self.
No wonder he is afraid of love! This “wise man” defines success as personal honor and material gain. To him, women represent the risk of vulnerability, dependence and entanglement. Kohelet is uncomfortable with whatever reminds him that his life is hevel (futile).
On this holiday, the fragile hut that is the sukkah reminds us of this very temporary and vulnerable nature of our lives. Kohelet’s response to mortality is to live for himself, in the moment. His advice regarding love amounts to: “Enjoy, but do not embrace or be embraced.” Our position in life is too uncertain already for him to advise risking the greater uncertainty of a loving relationship. When it comes to love, his wisdom falls apart and is revealed as shallow “tips for success” rather than guidance for full human flourishing.
Given our vulnerable and temporary lives, I would challenge us this Sukkot to loosen our obsession with stability and permanence, and be open (as the sukkah is) to discovering a wisdom that reaches beyond the practical, to being embraced by another’s reality, also known as falling in love. Through accepting our hevel (vapor), we can know life and welcome love.
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