On many holidays, it is customary to read one of the five megillos. There is always a connection between the festival and its megillah. On Sukkos we read Koheles. This megillah was written by Shlomo HaMelech and focuses on how he experienced every pleasure in this world (within the parameters of Jewish law) but discovered that it was all hevel havalim, the ultimate emptiness.
The commentaries observe that the message of Koheles seems to contradict the very essence of Sukkos. This holiday is described as zman simchaseinu, even more joyous than the other festivals. Koheles, in contrast, seems anything but joyous in its stress on the meaningless of this world. What connects Sukkos and Koheles?
In Darchei Mussar, Rav Yaakov Neiman, ztz”l, notes that a primary feature of Sukkos is the command to leave our permanent abode and live in a temporary dwelling. He points out that this move hardly seems conducive to joy. Leaving one’s secure, comfortable home for a flimsy, sparse sukkah sounds downright depressing. Rav Neiman explains, however, that a person can reach true happiness only when he recognizes that the pleasures of this world are illusory and provide no genuine joy or fulfillment. Exchanging the comforts of home for a sukkah facilitates this recognition.
Yet why can one never attain true happiness through this-worldly pleasures? A fundamental tenet of Judaism is that a human being is composed of body and soul. Both demand satisfaction: The body seeks the physical delights of this world, whereas the soul aspires to connect to Hashem, which is possible mainly in the next world. The soul can elevate the body to the point that the body becomes subservient to the soul and facilitates its connection to Hashem. For example, if one says a blessing when he eats, he elevates this mundane, physical act to a spiritual one. However, if a person focuses on this-worldly pleasures, his soul receives no satisfaction, since its aspirations are being ignored. It follows that over- attachment to the physical world excludes the soul and therefore precludes true joy.
We can now understand the connection between the joy of Sukkos and the apparent pessimism of Koheles. Shlomo HaMelech is saying that life is meaningless only when aimed at this-worldly pleasures. We see this idea in the Gemara’s discussion of a contradiction within Koheles. In the second chapter, Shlomo writes, “Joy, what does it do?” suggesting the futility of happiness. However, in the eighth chapter, he tells us, “I praised joy.” The Gemara explains that joy is praiseworthy when it involves a mitzvah and futile when it does not. In other words, happiness rooted in this world is meaningless, but the joy of spirituality is to be praised.
Accordingly, Sukkos and Koheles go hand in hand. Both teach us that the only way to attain true happiness is by recognizing that this-worldly pleasures will never satisfy the soul’s yearning for Hashem. May we apply these lessons to our lives and experience the joy of Sukkos.