Why is Kohelet Read on Sukkot?

BY DAVID CURWIN

Common to the stories of both Adam and Shlomo is the descent from great potential to disgrace. They became obsessed with acquiring the few things forbidden to them, and their prosperity caused their downfall.

The dangers of abundance don’t apply only to those like Adam and Shlomo. A passage in Devarim shows that everyone is at risk: “Beware not to forget Hashem… Otherwise, when you’ve eaten and been satisfied, built good houses and lived in them, when your herds and flocks have multiplied, your silver and gold have multiplied, and all that you own has multiplied, your heart will grow haughty, and you’ll forget the L-rd your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt… who led you through the wilderness… You’ll say to yourselves, ‘My power, the strength of my hand, brought me this great wealth” (Devarim 8:11–17). 

These verses recall the laws of kings (Devarim 17:14–20). The phrase, “your heart will grow haughty,” appears in the Torah only here and in the laws of the king: “to not act haughtily above his brothers.” Additionally, “multiply” appears here three times, as well as when prohibiting the king from amassing horses, wives, and “gold and silver.” These parallels show that like the king, ordinary citizens may forget G-d when things go well.

Devarim 8 includes another sign of prosperity not mentioned in the laws of kings: building houses. The king isn’t prohibited from building houses, and with one exception, there’s no mention in the Tanach of anyone building houses until David and Shlomo. The stability of their monarchy and permanent dwellings exemplifies a level of comfort that can lead to the neglect of G-d – a risk the Torah seeks to mitigate.

After David built his house, he wanted to build a House for G-d. Nathan told David that G-d never asked for a permanent House and was satisfied with a temporary Tabernacle. But just as the people asked for a monarchy (a “house” of kingship), if they ask for a House for G-d, they’ll get it – along with the risk of no longer feeling vulnerable  and dependent on G-d (Shmuel II 7:1–16). 

David’s son Shlomo was tasked with building G-d’s House, and building is a focus of his reign (see also Kohelet 2:4). Yet in Devarim 8, the danger inherent in building and dwelling in “good houses” is applied to all Jews, not only the king. The antidote is remembering that G-d “brought you out of the land of Egypt,” and “led you through the wilderness.” Those miracles were unmistakable. But G-d was no less involved in our success once we entered Israel, built our houses, and acquired possessions.

While this lesson is important all year long, it’s particularly emphasized on Sukkot. Sukkot occurs at harvest, when we’re likely to rejoice in abundance and potentially forget G-d, and so we leave our houses and recreate the sukkot of the wilderness to remember G-d’s role in our achievements. If we would remain secure in our houses during our harvest celebration, we’d risk forgetting where our blessings came from.

But gratitude to G-d isn’t sufficient to prevent that hazardous haughtiness. Just as the king is warned against “acting haughtily above his brothers,” so is every Jew commanded to include his brothers in his harvest celebration. Sukkot includes the instruction: “Rejoice in your festival… the migrants, orphans, and widows” (Devarim 16:13–15). Including the disadvantaged in the celebration demonstrates that the harvest bounty doesn’t belong to the landowner alone.

Cultivating dependence on G-d is the goal of Sukkot. Transitioning from established houses to the temporary sukkot mirrors the move from the wilderness, with full reliance on G-d, to Eretz Yisrael, where it might seem we’re no longer dependent upon Him.

Both Adam and Shlomo had to learn this lesson. Adam left the Garden, where G-d provided everything, for a life of toil. But even in this new life, he needed to understand he was still dependent on G-d, and therefore must remain obedient to G-d’s will.

Shlomo lived a life of houses. He built his own house and the House of God. Inside those structures, his success appeared invulnerable, and his legacy permanent. But he, too, discovered how dependent he was on G-d. According to Kohelet, Shlomo ultimately understood that life is both futile and overwhelming when our relationship with G-d is shattered. Ultimately, Shlomo’s houses weren’t stable. Life’s temporality couldn’t be averted in houses of stone.

There’s no difference between a temporary booth in the wilderness and a majestic palace in the capital. This, ultimately, is the message of both Kohelet and Sukkot.

Adapted from David Curwin’s new book, Kohelet – A Map to Eden (Maggid, 2023), which demonstrates how Kohelet compares the lives of Adam and Shlomo.

 

David Curwin is a writer and independent scholar living in Efrat. He writes about Hebrew language issues on his site balashon.com and has published widely on Tanakh and Jewish philosophy. He is a regular contributor to HaMizrachi Parsha Weekly.

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