Like many Jews around the world, the morning after breaking the fast of Yom Kippur, I helped build a Sukkah. As must of liberal Judaism does, I do not have my own, but have the sukkah of a prayer community I’m involved with. With a September Sukkot, and rather good weather, it seems all the more enticing, to dwell out in this structure for a few days.
Also like many Jews around the world, I spent the first few days after Sukkot talking with other Jews about their Yom Kippur. We would talk about their fast and how they lasted before breaking their fast. We would talk about each rabbi’s sermon or D’var Torah and we would talk about how the services were presented. One conversation I had was with someone who had very mixed feelings about video screen PowerPoint presentations during the sermon. I, for one was taken aback at such a blatant use of technology. I’ll let a few instruments in services, no problem, but there seem to be a line crossed when a video screen, either connected to a computer or television system is part of the holiest day of Yom Kippur. My reaction led me to think of some interesting Hebrew vocabulary we find during Sukkot.
While most people connect the reading of the Megillah with the reading of Megilat Esther, the reading for Purim, there are actually five such readings from the Ketuvim, the writings of the biblical text, each associated with a holiday on the calendar. The traditional reading during the holiday of Sukkot is Ecclesiastes, in Hebrew Kohelet, supposedly written by king Solomon in his old age. That book starts on a less than optimistic tone, and gets gloomy from there:
א דברי קוהלת בן-דויד, מלך בירושלים. ב הבל הבלים אמר קוהלת, הבל הבלים הכול הבל. ג מה-יתרון, לאדם: בכל-עמלו–שיעמול, תחת השמש.
1 The words of Kohelet, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 Vanity of vanities, said Kohelet; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. 3 What profit has man of all his labor when he labors under the sun? [Kohelet 1]
The key word in this verse is, חבל , Hevel. Here it is translated vanity, but a check of the Brown Driver Briggs Lexicon gives us some texture to that word.
|From Google books BDB Page 211|
We also have verses including hevel and something else of interest, the first of these being:
יד רָאִיתִי, אֶת-כָּל-הַמַּעֲשִׂים, שֶׁנַּעֲשׂוּ, תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ; וְהִנֵּה הַכֹּל הֶבֶל, וּרְעוּת רוּחַ.
14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.[Kohelet 1]
The word for wind here is רוּחַ Ruach. On page 1112 of the Brown Driver Briggs Lexicon reads like this.
|From Google Books BDB pg 924|
In kohelet 1:14 we have wind in a phrase “striving after wind.” The word used as striving in the Biblical text is found only here so understanding it cannot be done by context. However we can look to the Aramaic translation, the Targum, for its meaning of the word. In the Targum chasing after wind is translated ותבירות רוחא , which gives us a new word, תבירות translated in English by the Jastrow Dictionary as:
|From Tynedale Archive Jastrow Dictionary pg 1644|
Thus the parallelism in kohelet all is vanity and a striving after wind talks about disappointment and futility. Yet in both words, the image of air flow is important, In hevel, it is a breath, in ruach it is a strong wind. We cannot catch the wind, and we cannot sustain breathing out. That is the common image of futility. Yet there is also a large difference between the two. Ruach is a sustainable wind, lasting a long time if not forever, much like our spirit and souls. Ruach can be strong compared to Hevel’s feebleness. Hevel is a mere wisp of breath, so fleeting to be meaningless. Indeed it is so common, most of our lives we ignore it completely.
Ruach is our home, Hevel our sukkah. Ruach is our soul, Hevel the petty meaningless thoughts we have everyday. Ruach is genius behind a classic novel, Hevel the latest gossip tweet about some 2nd rate actress. They are a polarity, one where we can see where there is meaning.
Hevel all too often happens on video monitors. It’s not the use of electricity on a holiday that disturbs me, as much as the Hevel that makes up its content. Many argue we need such things to keep the younger generation engaged, and many of the older generations as well. But if we use things that have no substance, how can we build substance? PowerPoint and short videos are all hevel. They might engage an emotion, but they rarely engage the mind for long, if at all.
It is therefore ironic, that something so like hevel, a sukkah, is so good at countering hevel. Exposing us to the lie that hevel is substantial, we live in something that is temporary and very leaky. We get days that the wind blows us and our decorations around while threatening the structural integrity of our little home. In a sukkah we are subjected to cold and rain. But we are also blessed by seeing stars and meteors, the beautiful designs the Ruach shapes clouds into sculptures and paintings, the comedy of squirrels. Many of these change, but they are almost always there. Seeing them engages parts of our souls and spirits that may be asleep. We can engage our imagination, our will toward doing good things, here in the sukkah, all of this grows our personal Ruach. We cannot catch Ruach, but we can grow it by observing it.
King Solomon was right to be pessimistic in his old age. Even in his low tech times, he found that much of life was vanity and chasing after wind. Pursuing wealth, collecting wisdom or being a party boy, only leaves one as satisfied as eating one potato chip. Yet I believe, if we do not pursue wind, but sit there and observe it, then somehow in the observing, we energize the spirit and inspiration needed in our lives and in our souls.