says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun? — Ecclesiastes 1:2‑3
A note to our readers: Today marks the second day of Sukkot, which is observed for seven days (through Oct. 11). Throughout this week, our reflections have been tied to this biblically mandated holiday. Since no work can be done today, this devotion was prepared in advance for you.
Every Jewish holiday is associated with a particular biblical book which is read on the holiday itself. On Passover, we read Song of Songs, on Shavuot, the book of Ruth. On the holiday of Sukkot we read the book of Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes is a Latin translation of the Hebrew word Kohelet. Kohelet literally means “gatherer,” but is used to mean “teacher” throughout the book. It is a term that Solomon, the author of the book, uses as the book’s title and also to refer to himself. He has gathered up all this knowledge and is sharing it with us in this epic work. And what is his conclusion? It can be summed up in perhaps the most well-known phrase which both begins and concludes Ecclesiastes: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless! . . . Everything is meaningless.’”
How are we to understand these words? Are our lives truly meaningless? And what does this have to do with Sukkot?
The answer can be found in the very next verse: “What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?” The key phrase is “under the sun.” Life under the sun is what the teacher finds meaningless.
“Under the sun” refers to life on earth. The unwritten law of the physical world we live in is “he who dies with the most toys wins.” People dedicate their lives to acquiring the nicest homes, the fanciest cars, and the latest technological craze. However, at the end of life these things don’t matter at all. You can’t enjoy your toys when you’re dead, and since that is everyone’s destiny, what’s the point of working toward all those useless things in the first place?
Solomon teaches that nothing we can accomplish “under the sun” has real, lasting value. However, there is also life “above the sun.”
Above the sun exists another world, the spiritual world. That is the only place where anything we acquire has true worth. And the types of things we can acquire that have real, lasting value aren’t things at all. They are our good deeds and service to God. Only these things will be with us forever, and only these things have meaning.
On Sukkot, as we sit in our flimsy huts with their insubstantial roofs, we realize how fleeting and vulnerable anything we build in this world truly is. Our vision isn’t clouded by a sturdy, secure roof which blocks our view of the great expanse beyond the sun and moon. We can see past all that and recognize that life “under the sun” is only a corridor. Above the sun is where we will ultimately live and it is only there that life earns its meaning.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President