The Ups and Downs of Life
This Shabbat during Sukkot we read the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes. Kohelet was a nickname for King Solomon and literally means gathering – referring either to the many people who would gather to hear his words of wisdom or to the fact that he gathered and compiled many proverbs about life. Indeed Solomon authored three of the 24 books of the Bible and was quite famous for his wisdom.
Kohelet was written near the end of his life and in it he shares his musings about his accomplishments and their worth, or lack thereof as the case may be. הבל הבלים “Vanities of vanities…” is his desperate cry. The Hebrew word hevel literally meaning vapor – something that appears to have substance but does not upon closer inspection. A cloud looks big and ominous until you get up close and your hand passes right through it. This becomes his apt symbol of life throughout the work. Are things we strive for really substantial or, as we get closer to them, not so much?
King Solomon lived at the pinnacle of Jewish history, a golden age of sorts of peace and prosperity. He was well-suited to talk about all the good things in life as he had them all. His conflicted feelings of accomplishment are made early on when he describes how he amassed much wealth and power; building houses, vineyards, gardens and orchards. He writes of how he had gold, silver, workers and every possible pleasure available to him. He even boasts that he had more than all of his predecessors but “still my wisdom stood by me”, claiming that he did not become an idiotic fool and buffoon that great wealth turns many a man into.
How often do we see the wealthy and powerful make complete asses of themselves as ego and desire turn them into utter fools? How sad when we witness them ignore the advice of experts and impulsively make single-handed decisions that destroy the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, loyal allies, in far off lands and throw regions into disarray.
Upon reflection of his vast achievements, on the one hand Solomon declares, “For my heart was very happy in all of my accomplishments.” But he immediately follows up with, “And I turned to look at all that I have done and the energy I had expended in doing them and behold it was all empty and a pain in my soul.” Just like that, he turns on a dime, does a 180 and goes from feeling great about all that he has and all he has done, to feeling completely empty; wondering what it was all about and if it was worth it.
I am sure we can all relate to Solomon on some level. All of us go through periods where we spend gobs and gobs of time, effort, blood, sweat and tears on various endeavors in our lives – be they building a home or a business or family and relationships – step back and feel completely wonderful and satisfied about it. But then we may look at it other times – further down the road of life perhaps – and wonder whether it was really worth it or not. It can get very confusing as we ponder if it was a waste of time, a waste of a good chunk of life, or did it have an ultimate meaning and good to it.
A solution, or better an illustration, of this dilemma may be found in one of the main symbols of Sukkot – the Lulav and Etrog that we wave on this holiday. Jewish tradition speaks of the four species and relates them to four different types of Jews in our community. The symbolism of each is connected to whether or not each of the four species, or their fruits, have taste and/or smell, correspondiong to Torah and good deeds respectively. The idea being Torah wisdom gives one “taste” i.e. substance and depth, and that doing mitzvot gives one a nice “smell”, because those who perform mitzvot are pleasant to be around.
- The Etrog has both a good taste and a good smell, symbolizing those who have both Torah and do good deeds/mitzvot.
- The Lulav is from a date palm, and hence has taste (dates) but no smell, symbolizing those who study Torah but may be weak in the area of doing mitzvot.
- The Hadassim/myrtle branch, has a good smell but no taste, symbolizing those Jews who do mitzvot but are not so involved in Torah study.
- The Aravah/willow branch has neither taste nor smell, symbolizing those Jews who have neither Torah nor do many mitzvot.
So it turns out that the Etrog has everything going on, the Lulav and Hadassim/Myrtle are partially successful while the Aravah/Willow has nothing going on. And when you think of it, doesn’t life feel that way? Don’t we feel at times that everything is going our way, that it is all clicking and working well – we got our health, we are financially comfortable and feeling accomplished? Life tastes and smells as delicious as an Etrog.
Yet, on the other end of the spectrum, there are times when nothing seems to be going right and life seems fragile and ready to wither like the willow branch without water. And just as the willow has nothing pleasant about it and seems boring and stale, we might feel the same of our lives and just want to stay in bed, give up and not face the world.
However most of the time, life is a mixed bag like the Lulav or Myrtle/Hadas – it has one or the other. And maybe that is why we get more of this category, two of the four, than the others because for most of us, during much of our lives we are doing pretty good in one area, but need some work in another. Business is great, but I seem to be working too hard. I get along great with most of my family, but there is one child whom I am having trouble with. I like most of the people I work with, but there is this one twit who is a complete incompetent. I love my house, but we really need to redo the kitchen. Miami weather is perfect in December but unbearable in August. London weather is perfect in August but horrible the rest of the year.
And so it goes, it is seldom all perfect or all bad. It is usually somewhere in between.
King Solomon was a man of extremes and he vacillated between one or the other. It was either all so amazing or all so meaningless. But if you want to have real happiness in life, you have to realize that most of it is not lived in the extremes – it isn’t all so perfect like the Etrog or not all so terrible like the Willow. It is in the middle, like the Lulav and Hadas – a bit of this and a bit of that.
If you want a steady supply of Happiness in life, you have to live in the middle. Go ahead and have a great time when it all goes well, but don’t expect it will remain that way forever. And when things seem lousy, roll with the bad knowing that this too shall pass and will not remain that way forever. Enjoy the good days, soldier through the bad and realize that most of life in somewhere in the middle. And if we do that, life won’t ever feel empty and meaningless, like hevel/vapor, but full and rewarding – both the good and the not so good.
As my life goes on I believe
Somehow something’s changed
Something deep inside
Oh a part of me
There’s a strange new light in my eyes
Things I’ve never known
Changin’ my life
I’ve been searchin’ so long
To find an answer
Now I know my life has meaning